Louis Erdrich in her prize-winning novel, The Round House, tells the story of the violent rape of a Native woman by a white man on an Indian reservation in North Dakota in 1988, and the resulting legal problem as to whether the federal or Native American courts had jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute the crime. This was discussed in a prior post.
This jurisdictional conundrum is not just a subject for fiction. It is a real problem in the U.S. today that would be addressed by a law now being debated in the U.S. Congress.
In recent years a Southern Ute Indian woman married a white man, and they lived on the tribe’s reservation in southern Colorado. There she was subjected to frequent beatings and threats. Because her husband was white, the Southern Ute Tribal Police could not investigate and prosecute him. Because she was a Native American on tribal land, state authorities were powerless as well. Federal law enforcement did have jurisdiction, but they declined to do anything.
Later the husband came with a gun to the Southern Ute woman’s office at the federal Bureau of Land Management and opened fire and wounded a co-worker. The state officials arrested him, but only after a tape measure was used to determine the distance between the barrel of the gun and the point of the bullet’s impact in order to establish state jurisdiction.
This jurisdictional problem is addressed in a Senate bill (S.47), the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act 2013 (VAWA 2013). This legislation would, for the first time, allow Native American police and courts to investigate and prosecute non-Indians who commit certain violent crimes against Native women on tribal land. The details are in section 904 [204(b)] of the bill.
The bill, in section 904 [204 (d)], also provides protections for the rights of those non-Indians who are accused of such crimes.
U.S. Senate Proceedings Regarding S.47
Last Thursday, February 7th, the Senate defeated, 65 to 34, an amendment to this bill offered by Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa. It would have placed more federal prosecutors and magistrates in Indian country for domestic violence and sexual assault cases and would have allowed tribes to petition a federal court for protective orders to exclude an abuser from Indian land. This was S.Amendt.14 to the bill.
On February 11th, the Senate rejected, 59-31, an amendment to the bill offered by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to delete the bill’s provisions granting additional powers to Indian courts. This was S.Amendt.13 to the bill.
Finally yesterday (February 12th) the Senate passed, 78-22, the bill with the support of 23 Republicans. Now it will be sent it to the House of Representatives.
Immediately afterwards, President Obama released a statement saying, “This important step shows what we can do when we come together across party lines to take up a just cause.” He added, “The bill passed by the Senate will help reduce homicides that occur from domestic violence, improve the criminal justice response to rape and sexual assault, address the high rates of dating violence experienced by young women, and provide justice to the most vulnerable among us.”
I want to thank Senator Leahy and his colleagues from both sides of the aisle for the leadership they have shown on behalf of victims of abuse. It’s now time for the House to follow suit and send this bill to my desk so that I can sign it into law.”
Proceedings in the House of Representatives Regarding S.47
Many of the House Republicans are believed to be opponents of the bill’s provisions on Indian courts.
However, 17 House Republicans on February 11th sent a joint letter to Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor urging the House to “immediately” reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. The letter also said, “Now is the time to seek bipartisan compromise on the reauthorization of these programs” and such a bill “must reach all victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking in every community in the country,”
In addition Republican Representatives Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Darrell Issa of California have proposed an amendment to the bill that would offer non-Indian defendants a right to remove their case to a federal court in certain circumstances.
We now await House action on the bill. Its supporters should urge their Representatives to support the bill.
In my opinion, the current jurisdictional “black hole” is outrageous and needs to be eliminated as soon as possible. I have not seen any indication that anyone believes otherwise.
Instead, the opposition to this proposed legislation regarding violent crimes against Indian women purportedly is based on concern for the due process rights for any non-Indian man who is accused of such crimes in a tribal court.
I share those due process concerns as I would for any defendants under any new criminal statute. However, I do not know enough about the procedures and practices of tribal courts and of the quality of their judges to come to a reasoned conclusion on whether and how the bill might be amended to address any legitimate concerns on this issue. For an outsider, this should be something that Congressmen and women of all persuasions should be able to agree upon.