Attorneys who crowded into Surrogate Judge Joseph S. Mattina's courtroom recently were surprised to see him flanked on either side by two women, whom he introduced as the new surrogate judges of the Seneca Nation of Indians.
The women were in his courtroom for on-the-job training, Mattina explained to the lawyers, "to watch me and you and to listen."
The attorneys picked up quickly on the trio, each approaching the bench and addressing: "Good morning, your honors."
The two women were Lenith Seneca and Maxine Black. Both were elected last month as Seneca surrogate judges.
Neither, however, had training in law or experience in dealing with the legal issues that they would be facing as surrogates for 6,600 Senecas on the Allegany and Cattaraugus reservations.
Overwhelmed with their new job and reluctant to make any decisions until they were more informed, Ms. Seneca remembered her mother talking about the surrogate judge in Erie County who had given her some help when she became a surrogate several years ago. So she called the same judge, Mattina.
"Help, please," she asked Mattina.
"Of course, come on down and spend the day with me," he replied.
Mattina's court deals with most of the same responsibilities that Judge Seneca and Judge Black will be responsible for: probating wills and handling estates and trust funds held for incapacitated adults and minor children.
But there are differences, like ancient laws handed down orally through the traditional Longhouse religion.
Judge Seneca gave an example of the Longhouse tradition of a 10-day feast following a death:
"During that time, possessions of the dead person can be given away by members of the family, and whatever they give away stands even if there is a will and it says something else," she explained. "The tradition supersedes any decision we might make."
Both women expressed little doubt that determining how much land someone owned and where the boundaries are laid will be one of their biggest estate problems.
"For years, there was no such thing as surveys," Judge Seneca said. "It was from this tree to that tree but now, the trees may be gone. The Nation is trying to get lots surveyed but we have a long way to go."
Next problem: people who die without wills.
"More and more Indians are writing wills," Judge Black observed, "but with many of the older people, they didn't trust anybody and either didn't write a will or if they did, hid it someplace where no one ever found it."
But the surrogate's decision is not necessarily final.
The Seneca Nation also elects Peacemakers, a higher level of justice than surrogates on the reservation.
"If they do not like our decision, they can go to the Peacemakers," Judge Seneca said. "And if they don't like what they decide, they can go to the Tribal Council, which has the final say. And, of course, they can always go to our president and many do and he helps them work through our system."
In Mattina's chambers, the two women asked dozens of questions and explained that they would be involved in one-on-one learning sessions with an Oklahoma attorney who specializes in Indian law.
Mattina was as interested in the Indian courtroom as the new judges were about his.
After the session in the judge's chambers they went to a working lunch with trust officers from the M & T Bank. There is talk within the Nation about a per-capita distribution of the one-time $60 million payment that the Indians expect to receive from the state and federal governments as part of the Salamanca land lease agreement.
If that occurs, payments to Senecas under 18 would be placed in trust funds, which the surrogates would be responsible for until the youths reach 18.
Throughout the day, Mattina kept reassuring the new judges not to worry because they were not lawyers.
"There are a lot of town justices out there who aren't lawyers," he said. "If you ever have a problem while you are hearing a case, just go into chambers, examine the law, call here and get some advice. Remember to do your research and above all, to be fair."
He also told them the job was a lot of work but "rewarding."
Mattina was curious about how much they would be paid.
"We will work a 40-hour week for $8 an hour," Judge Black said. Mattina couldn't mask his surprise.
"Eight dollars an hour?" he replied.
"But we do get mileage if we have to go from one reservation to another or to somebody else's house," Judge Seneca added.
Mattina still couldn't believe it.
He makes $95,000 a year.