Michael S. Pfeffer's Profile Image

Michael S. Pfeffer

Phone: (510) 835-3020

Michael S. Pfeffer is easily one of California’s preeminent Indian law attorneys and advocates. Having served California tribal communities for over 35 years, Michael is one of the “forefathers” of California Indian law and jurisprudence and he has dedicated his life’s work to defending the rights of California Indians and the sovereignty of California tribes.

Michael is not only a devoted advocate, he has been an incredibly effective one at tribal, local, state and federal levels. In his 35 years of practicing law and directing a cadre of Indian law attorneys, the tools of legal advocacy that Michael has successfully utilized to benefit California Indians are unparalleled. Michael has utilized litigation, grass-roots mobilization efforts for the most vulnerable California Indian populations, and lobbying and legislative advocacy at the State and federal levels to highlight and address the special needs of California Indians and tribes, as well as providing advice and expertise to tribal governments on governance issues. Michael’s success as an advocate is not only evident in the results of his long-term legal advocacy, but also in the long line of lawyers that he has tirelessly mentored and inspired. Many of the attorneys he supervised and managed during his 23-year tenure as Executive Director of California Indian Legal Services (CILS) continue to serve as advocates in Indian country and elsewhere.

Throughout his many years in legal services, Michael oversaw and supervised many of the seminal federal court cases impacting the rights of Indians and tribes in California, including Hammond v. Cnty. of Madera, 859 F.2d 797 (9th Cir. 1988), Sample v. Borg, 675 F. Supp. 574 (E.D. Cal. 1987) vacated, 870 F.2d 563 (9th Cir. 1989), and Mattz v. Superior Court, 46 Cal. 3d 355 (1988), and many others. At a time before the advent of Indian gaming when most California tribes were struggling to simply survive, Michael also made it a top priority to reach out to both tribes and tribal members, as well as other Indians, to provide the highest quality legal representation regardless of their ability to pay for a lawyer. It was largely Michael’s perseverance, diligence, creativity and persuasiveness that enabled CILS to survive the devastating funding cuts to legal services programs in the 1990s. Michael worked tirelessly to ensure that Indians in California would have a place to turn to for trusted referrals, legal information, legal advice, and brief services. Michael instituted innovative legal service programs that made it easier for low-income Indians to access legal help and information in many areas relevant to their lives, such as unsealing birth certificates for enrollment purposes, free tax assistance for Indians under the Earned Income Tax Credit program (EITC), Indian child and family protection, and Indian allotment land questions or disputes, to name but a few areas.

Michael has always maintained his focus on stimulating long-term improvements in Indian law and policy – resulting in improving the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Indian people and strengthening tribal governments throughout California. For example, Michael has long been the leading expert in California Tribal TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families). His efforts in developing and lobbying for TANF legislation not only made an enormous impact nationally, it also made it possible for California tribes — which have continually received the short end of an already short stick in terms of federal assistance — to make important strides through special legislative language geared specifically toward their unique circumstances.

In December 2005, Michael stepped down as Executive Director of CILS, and shortly thereafter entered private practice. This did not deter him from continuing his social justice work in Indian Country. As a founding partner of Maier Pfeffer Geary Kim & Cohen LLP, Michael continues to work with other former CILS attorneys in advocating for Indians and working to strengthen tribal governments for future generations to come.

Read more here about Michael’s other recent work. The examples provided are just some of Michael’s many achievements in his career as an Indian law advocate. Michael’s practice both at CILS and in private practice is a testament to how his many years of hard work, brilliance, and unparalleled dedication to California Indians and tribes can quietly bear fruit.


  • University of California, Berkeley, Boalt School of Law, J.D., 1979
  • Cornell University, B.S., 1971

Bar Admissions

  • California

Background and Service with California Indian Legal Services (CILS)

For over two decades, Michael Pfeffer served as the Executive Director of CILS. However, his passion for Indian law began long before his tenure as Executive Director. After college, Michael served as Systems Engineer for IBM in San Francisco, supporting large clients ranging from Chevron to Bank of America. While still employed full-time at IBM, Michael started to earn his MBA in Accounting, but recognized that his true calling was to help underserved communities and began his law school career. During his time as a law student at Boalt School of Law, Michael studied Federal Indian Law under George F. Duke, the founding Executive Director of CILS, and clerked for both Mr. Duke and CILS, working on the many important cases then in litigation that dramatically improved the lives of California Indians and Indian tribes. Following graduation from Boalt in 1979, Michael continued to split his time between working for CILS and Mr. Duke until he was appointed to a staff attorney position in the Eureka Office of CILS in the summer of 1980. Shortly thereafter, he took on the duties of Directing Attorney, and in September of 1982, was appointed Executive Director of CILS, a position he held for more than 23 years.

Representative Cases

  • Hammond v. Cnty. of Madera, 859 F.2d 797 (9th Cir. 1988)
  • Sample v. Borg, 675 F. Supp. 574 (E.D. Cal. 1987) vacated, 870 F.2d 563 (9th Cir. 1989)
  • Mattz v. Superior Court, 46 Cal. 3d 355 (1988)
  • Pinoleville Indian Community v. Mendocino County, 684 F.Supp. 1042 (1988)
  • Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association v. Lyng, 485 U.S. 439 (1988)
  • Quechan Indian Tribe v. San Pasqual Valley Unified School District
  • In re Kahlen W., 233 Cal. App. 3d 1414 (Ct. App. 1991)
  • Malone v. Bureau of Indian Affairs, 38 F.3d 433 (9th Cir. 1994)
  • Pechanga Band v. City of Temecula
  • Quechan Tribe v. Southern Pacific Transportation Co., 601 F.2d 1059 (9th Cir. 1979)
  • People v. McCovey, 36 Cal. 3d 517 (1984)
  • Coyote Valley Band v. U.S., 639 F. Supp. 165 (E.D. Cal. 1986)
  • Tillie Hardwick v. U.S.A., No. 5:79–cv–01710 (N.D. Cal. 1983)
  • Duncan v. U.S., 667 F.2d 36 (Ct. Cl. 1981)

TANF Advocacy

Michael worked at the national level with NCAI and others on drafting the original TANF legislation, the technical amendments, and ultimately the federal regulations. On the California side, he helped draft the revisions to the Welfare and Institution Code that provided California tribes sufficient funding to operate the important new program and that also mandated that counties, when developing their own plans, must take tribal concerns into account. Michael then took the initiative and worked to create the California-Nevada Tribal TANF Association (CNTTA) in the early 2000s, which would set the groundwork for California Tribes to understand and take advantage of the opportunities of TANF made possible. After helping to establish the California Tribal TANF Partnership (CTTP) in 2003, Michael also served as its General Counsel.

Michael’s advocacy in the area of Tribal TANF continued to expand over his 10 years in private practice as he worked with tribal leaders to establish several new Tribal TANF programs, including the Tribal TANF consortiums and programs of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians of California. His many years of service on behalf of Tribal TANF in California have contributed to the economic empowerment and independence of both tribal governments and their members.

Other Recent Work


Michael was instrumental in helping a California tribal client amend its tribal constitution in 2013 to protect against disenrollment except in very limited circumstances. Such pioneering work in supporting a California tribe effectuate tribal constitutional reforms and protections for its tribal citizens is consistent with the Michael’s commitment to support tribes that wish to exercise their inherent sovereignty in ways that make a positive difference for Indian Nations.

Tax Exemption

Michael played an important role in assisting a client successfully to push for amendments to State Board of Equalization (SBOE) Regulation 1616, allowing for sales and use tax exemption for property delivered to tribal governments that do not have a reservation or that do not have a facility on trust lands from which to meet and conduct tribal governmental business. As a result of the tribal self-governance exemption, many California tribes that operate their governmental programs on fee lands are able to qualify for exemption from sales and use tax on items delivered to their offices, hence, making it more equitable for landless tribes.

Probate Reform

Michael is a powerful advocate before Congress on probate reform, seeking to address serious problems in the area of Indian and tribal lands. He opened a Washington D.C. branch office for CILS to ensure a California tribal presence so that the special circumstances and unique problems faced by California Indians and tribes were not overlooked in the preparation and passage of the American Indian Probate Reform Act (AIPRA) in 2004, which helped consolidate Indian land ownership across the country, including California, in order to ensure greater economic viability of Indian assets.