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Tribal Law and Order Act expected to be felt on Standing Rock


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buy this photoStanding Rock Sioux Tribe Chief Judge William Zuger, back to camera, swears in about two dozen federal law enforcement officers from across the country to give them the authority to execute their duties on the reservation. The ceremony was held in Fort Yates on July 19, 2010.

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More than 140 years of treaties, statutes and case law have made justice on Native American reservations across the country a tangled web. But officials with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe believe the newest piece of federal legislation could begin to straighten out some of the problems with tribal justice issues.

The Tribal Law and Order Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama on July 29. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., sponsored the bill in response to what he said is a crisis situation on Indian reservations, where violent crime continues to devastate communities at rates much higher than the national average. Dorgan, the Indian Affairs committee chairman, said he spent about three years crafting the legislation.

“This has been a really big accomplishment,” he said of its passage.

The new law enables tribal courts to sentence people to up to three years in prison. Previously, tribal courts could issue only one-year sentences.

Standing Rock Tribal Chief Judge William Zuger said Standing Rock’s constitution only allows one-year sentences right now, so a change to allow for three-year sentences would have to go to a vote of the tribal members. Tribal Chairman Charles Murphy said the issue will depend on recommendations and research from the judicial committee and law enforcement.

While some tribes would have to make fundamental changes to their court structure in order to implement longer sentences — such as using law-trained attorneys and judges rather than lay people — Standing Rock already has an advanced court system similar to state district courts.

“We have one of the best court systems on any rez,” Murphy said.

Standing Rock public defender Jim Cerny said the possibility of three-year sentences likely would result in the U.S. attorney’s offices leaving more cases in tribal court, resulting in the tribe having more control over crime on the reservation. The sense of paternalism exhibited throughout history by the government toward tribes may be eased by the new law, Cerny speculated.

“It brings more sovereignty to a tribe,” he said.

Zuger said another provision of the law would enable federal

criminal trials related to reservation crime to be held on reservations.

“Nobody wants to have to go somewhere else to have a case tried,” he said.

Tribal courts and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction over several felonies classified in the Major Crimes Act, including murders and rapes, that occur on reservations. If federal prosecutors decline prosecution in those cases, tribal officials don’t always receive investigative information from federal agencies, making it difficult to prosecute the crimes in tribal court. The Tribal Law and Order Act requires the Department of Justice to file reports to tribal justice officials explaining why cases aren’t being prosecuted federally to coordinate the prosecution of crimes on reservations.

Cerny said most of the criminal cases from the reservation that he defends in federal court are easy cases for the U.S. attorney’s offices. If a case is questionable, they leave the cases in tribal court, he said.

The problem with that, he explained, is that the Federal Bureau of Investigation often investigates crimes that fall under the Major Crimes Act, which are serious crimes such as murder and rape. If the U.S. attorney does not bring federal charges in those cases, federal agencies don’t always share investigatory information with tribal law enforcement and courts.

Standing Rock Chief Prosecutor Grant Walker said declinations are still an “on-going process.” Sometimes, investigations into the same incident have been going on in both the tribal and federal systems without either agency realizing it, he said.

Walker could become the first special assistant U.S. attorney for South Dakota in an effort to enhance communication and coordination between the tribal and federal courts. Efforts for that are still under way, he said.

The new law also provides resources to enhance cooperation among tribal, state and federal agencies, authorizes tribal police to make arrests for all crimes committed on reservations, provides tribal police more access to national criminal history databases, improves collection of reservation crime data, increases resources for dealing with domestic and sexual violence, increases training opportunities and seeks to increase the pools of potential Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement officers by upping the age limit from 35 to 46 and expediting background checks for potential peace and correctional officers.

Dorgan expects the Tribal Law and Order Act to have an immediate impact on improving justice issues on reservations.

“I think (the law) is going to make some improvement on our reservation,” Murphy said.

(Reach reporter Jenny Michael at 250-8225 or

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