State judge won't dismiss lawsuit over tribal enrollment

Paving the way for the resolution of internal tribal disputes in the state court system, a judge in California has asserted jurisdiction in a high-profile enrollment case.

In a short ruling last Friday, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Charles D. Field refused to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the enrollment policies of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians. While not deciding on the merits, he rejected the tribe's claim that it was protected from the scrutiny of outside courts.

By doing so, Field took the unprecedented step of concluding that Public Law 280, a termination-era law that granted certain states jurisdiction in Indian Country, applies in the case. Previously, the law has been interpreted to allow states to try Indians for criminal and civil offenses.

But Field also noted that the law was passed because Indians lacked an "adequate forum" to resolve disputes that arise on the reservation. Tribal membership, upon which thousands of dollars in casino payments and health, education and other benefits are based, is too important a matter to be left to tribes alone, he reasoned.

"To refer issues of this nature to a tribal council, all of whom have a personal stake in the outcome, few if any of whom have legal training, and where the council is under no compunction to follow established due process rights, appears to fall into the category referred to above as a 'lack of an adequate forum,'" Field wrote in the five-page decision.

For 133 people ousted from the Pechanga Band earlier this year, the ruling was welcomed as a positive development. "The right to have a day in court is one of the most basic rights all Americans enjoy," said Jon Velie, an attorney representing John Gomez Jr. and the other plaintiffs.

But to the tribe, the decision represents an incursion on sovereignty. In court papers, lawyers for the tribe cited hundreds of years of precedent that left internal matters like membership up to the tribes. The tribe has said its enrollment process afforded Gomez and his relatives due process even if it didn't occur in a court-like setting.

Field's ruling also has the potential to affect several other tribes in California. Just yesterday, 76 people ousted from the Redding Rancheria raised Public Law 280 in their case against the tribe.

According to a newly-formed group called California Indians for Justice, 2,000 Indians in the state have been removed from the tribal rolls or are facing disenrollment. During a protest at the state capitol this month, they called for the creation of tribal courts and an inter-tribal appeals court to handle reservation disputes.

When Public Law 280 was passed in 1953, Congress was busy terminating the government-to-government relationship with dozens of tribes, including many in California. Federal policy at the time encouraged state control over Indians, who were urged to move away from reservations.

The result was to discourage those tribes in California that weren't terminated from establishing an independent judiciary. To this day, only a handful in the state have their own court system.

Public Law 280, however, was deemed a failure because states neglected reservations rather than providing services to them. Congress eventually passed another law to allow states, to "retrocede" jurisdiction over Indians back to the the federal government. Public Law 280 never divested tribes of their jurisdiction over Indians.

The law has since been used to justify state criminal and civil jurisdiction over individual Indians. But the courts have not held that it applies to tribal governments. The U.S. Supreme Court avoided resolving that issue in a case where county law enforcement raided a California tribe's casino.

The enrollment lawsuit, though, does not name the tribal government. The defendants in the case are individual Pechangas who sit on the tribe's enrollment committee. The panel ruled that Manuela Miranda, an ancestor of the group ousted, had cut her ties to the Pechanga tribe in the early 1900s.

The ousted members want their enrollment within the tribe, and a reported $10,000 monthly per capita payment, restored. They represent about 10 percent of the tribe's remaining 1,100 members.

Field said he would put a stay on his ruling for 30 days while the parties file additional motions.

Get the Decision:
Salinas v. Lamere (July 23, 2004)

Relevant Links:
Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians -