Indian leaders ask Congress to reverse Supreme Court rulings

April 17, 1991|By Arch Parsons | Arch Parsons,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- More than 200 American Indian tribal leaders are demanding that Congress roll back U.S. Supreme Court decisions that they regard as detrimental to Indian sovereignty within the United States.

As the tribal leaders, representing the 2 million Indians, meet on Capitol Hill in a three-day forum to draft a national "legislative agenda," their case against the Supreme Court is bound to have a familiar ring to leaders of the nation's two largest minorities, blacks and Hispanics.

While the Indians' grievances with Supreme Court decisions are totally different from the judicial concerns of civil rights leaders, the tribes' complaint against the high court sounds very similar.

"The tribal leaders feel a sense of betrayal by the Supreme Court for abandoning its fundamental historic role as a protector of Indian tribes," said John Lavelle, policy analyst for the American Indian Resources Institute, which is sponsoring the National Tribal Leaders Forum.

"We now have to turn to the political process to get the protection we thought was guaranteed by the Constitution," Mr. Lavelle added. "Because of the abandonment by the Supreme Court of its role, the only avenue Indian country has now is Congress."

Mr. Lavelle is a member of the Santee Sioux tribe of Nebraska, but he emphasized that he was offering a personal opinion and was not speaking for either the tribal leaders or the institute.

While blacks and Hispanics are seeking legislation through a controversial civil rights bill to overturn six Supreme Court decisions concerning job discrimination, the Indian leaders are seeking to undo court decisions on their tribes' jurisdiction in criminal prosecution and taxation.

The leaders' most urgent demand is that Congress reverse what are known as the Supreme Court's Oliphant and Duro decisions.

In 1978, in its Oliphant decision, the court ruled that an Indian tribe did not have jurisdiction over non-Indians committing criminal misdemeanors on the tribe's reservation.

Then last May, in Duro vs. Reina, the court ruled that a tribe could no longer exercise authority in criminal misdemeanor cases over non-member Indians, that is, Indians on a tribe's reservation who were not members of the tribe.

The decisions "contradicted two centuries of federal Indian law," Mr. Lavelle said.

"They constituted a very major erosion of tribal sovereignty."

The uproar among the tribes over the Duro decision in particular was sufficient to cause Congress to enact a stopgap measure forestalling implementation of the decision until this September.

Facing that deadline, the tribal leaders are now seeking what they call a "permanent fix."

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, opened the forum Monday by acknowledging that the tribal leaders have given the committee its "most immediate marching orders -- [they] told us they wanted a permanent resolution to the Supreme Court's ruling in Duro."

As a result, Senator Inouye said, two bills are pending in Congress to reverse the court's ruling, a third bill "proposes to provide enhanced support to tribal courts" and a fourth bill that would "support tribal justice systems" is being drafted.

The committee held a hearing last week on the bills for a reversal of the decision; a committee aide said there was "a very good likelihood" that Congress would pass one of them.

"There is no one in Congress who questions whether or not tribal governments want the Duro ruling re

versed," Mr. Inouye told the tribal leaders.

"You have made your position clear."

In another decision, the so-called Citizen Band Pottawatomi case, the Supreme Court ruled in February that states may require collection of state sales taxes on Indian land. Again, the tribal leaders regarded this as an encroachment on tribal sovereignty.

Senator Inouye implied that if Congress did not reverse the decision, another approach could be tried.

Tribal and state governments have reached "very successful" tax agreements under which both sides recognize the right of each to tax, he said, and arrangements have been made that benefit both.

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