Federal judges a new concern for tribes
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Reeling from recent court decisions that have eroded their sovereign rights, tribal leaders are taking a greater interest in nominees to the federal bench.

As Democrats and Republicans in the Senate battle over President Bush's appointees, tribes are arriving late to the game, said John Echohawk, the executive director of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF). Along with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), his non-profit organization is helping to coordinate the judicial selection effort.

"Tribal leaders want to do a better job monitoring the nominees for the judgeships and Supreme Court justices," he said at NCAI's annual conference on Tuesday.

The Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana has taken a lead on the project, which is part of a greater initiative to protect tribal sovereignty. Through legislation, review of ongoing litigation and a public awareness campaign, tribes hope to restore full criminal and civil jurisdiction over their territory.

The effort could prompt tribes to take official positions for or against judicial nominees, something other advocacy organizations already do. Tribal officials in Washington jumped headfirst into that battle this past election cycle, when they launched a media campaign against a state high court candidate, citing his past involvement in litigation opposing tribal rights.

Federal bench nominees, who are picked by the White House after a lengthy selection process that usually involves senators from the state where the judge will serve, often have similar records. President Bush appointed, and the Senate confirmed, two Montana federal district court judges who have sought to tax tribes, limit jurisdiction over non-Indians and diminish tribal lands.

Another Bush pick represented the state of Alaska in the historic Venetie case that limited Alaska Native rights. John G. Roberts' nomination to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, which unanimously affirmed the Cobell case, is currently stalled in the Senate.

With the Republicans in control of the Senate, judicial nominees will be a top priority, a Senate aide told tribal leaders. Paul Moorehead, the chief counsel to Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said the chamber will begin the review in January.

Separately, Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith said his tribe wants to put an Indian woman on the federal bench. During a keynote address at Oklahoma University last Friday, he said it would take at least 30 years to meet the goal.

At NCAI, tribal leaders were given an update on other components of the sovereignty initiative. Echohawk said the litigation monitoring project's goal is to prevent cases from reaching the Supreme Court.

"We need to stay out of their way if we can," he said. The effort has largely been successful, he noted, with the exception of the two breach of trust cases that will be heard next month.

NCAI President Tex Hall pushed legislation to restore jurisdiction to tribes. The bill is still in draft form but allows tribes to opt in on a case-by-case basis.

Campbell expressed his support for the effort and plans to hold hearings on the subject. Moorehead said there would be a "vigorous effort" to educate members of Congress about the proposal.

"I imagine it will be controversial in some quarters of the Senate and the House," he offered.

Relevant Links:
Sovereignty Protection Initiative -
Native American Rights Fund -
Tunica-Biloxi Tribe -

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