KNAU and Arizona News
Fri July 13, 2012
Congress bickers over domestic violence bill that gives power to tribal courts
With all of the politicking in Washington these days, many bills are waiting for votes.
One of them would renew the Violence Against Women Act.
The House and Senate have each passed their own versions and a compromise seems doubtful.
One of the sticking points is that the Senate’s would expand the power of tribal courts to prosecute non-Native offenders.
Arizona Public Radio’s Shelley Smithson has more. .
Bernadine Martin is the chief prosecutor for the Navajo Nation.
She recalls an all-too-familiar conversation with tribal police in Chinle, Ariz., a few months ago:
“They were holding a non-Indian who had committed domestic violence against an intimate partner. They wanted to arrest him. I said, ‘No, we can’t do that. We don’t have jurisdiction,’” Martin says.
That’s because the federal government – not tribal authorities -- has jurisdiction over non-Indians accused of committing crimes on the reservation.
So, Martin says she told the officers in Chinle to drive the man to the reservation’s borders and, let him go.
“Unless the federal government comes to pick him up to prosecute him in federal court, there’s not a lot they can do.”
And, Martin says the U.S. Attorney’s Office seldom prosecutes first-time domestic violence offenders.
The Senate’s version of the Violence Against Women Act would give tribal courts jurisdiction over non-Indians in domestic-violence cases.
Martin says the provision would interrupt the cycle of domestic violence before it can turn deadly.
But the U.S. House bill strips out the tribal-court provisions.
It also eliminates controversial amendments that protect gays and lesbians and illegal immigrants from domestic violence.
Sam Hirsch is deputy associate U.S. Attorney in Washington.
He says giving tribal courts jurisdiction in these cases would correct a system that is unfair to Native American victims.
“If you have a household with an Indian wife and a non-Indian husband, if he hits her, the tribe can’t do a thing about it. Now if she hits him back, because she’s Indian, they can arrest, convict and sentence her, but they can’t do the same for him. It’s purely based on the racial identification of the actors. We don’t think that makes any sense, and Congress can fix that,” Hirsch says.
But not everyone agrees.
Arizona’s U.S. Senator Jon Kyl believes the tribal provisions passed by the Senate are unconstitutional.
He says non-Indians cannot vote in tribal elections or influence the laws they would be subjected to, so Native American laws should not apply to them.
Supporters of tribal jurisdiction say Kyl’s argument is faulty.
An Arizonan who commits a crime in New Mexico is still subject to the laws of New Mexico.
And Americans who commit crimes in France are prosecuted under French law.
If the Senate version of the bill passes, though, implementing the law could be difficult.
Navajo Police detective Michael Begay says he supports the idea of the law, but, “I think the biggest pitfall is if the Navajo courts are capable of handling additional cases involving non-Natives. We don’t have a full time prosecutor. We don’t have the jail space.”
Hirsch in the U.S. Attorney’s Office says the Senate bill includes grant funding to help tribes gear up for the added responsibilities.
Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy sponsored the Senate bill. He’s urged Congress to act on a final version before summer recess next month.