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U.S. Attorney, victims advocate defend VAWA

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U.S. Attorney, victims advocate defend VAWA
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GRAND FORKS -- A new federal law giving tribal courts limited jurisdiction in domestic violence cases involving non-Indians gives new hope to Indian women while safeguarding due process rights of the accused, according to U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon and a leading victims advocate.


In an opinion piece submitted to the state's daily and tribal newspapers this week, Purdon and Janelle Moos, executive director of the North Dakota Council on Abused Women's Services, say they are concerned about "misinformation floating around" about the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act and its new tribal court provisions.

The tribal provisions, which Purdon helped draft as chairman of the Justice Department's Native American Issues Subcommittee, could substantially improve the safety of women on reservations, Purdon said in an interview.

As he and Moos write, "Because of VAWA, no more will a non-Indian perpetrator of domestic violence scoff in the face of a first-responding tribal police officer, 'You have no jurisdiction -- what are you going to do about it?'"

Due process protections are built into the act, Purdon said.

Cramer concerns

Moos attended a meeting of her council in Bismarck March 26 at which Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., spoke passionately -- some who were there characterized his remarks as insulting and threatening -- about his concerns regarding VAWA's new tribal provisions.

Melissa Merrick, victim assistance director at the Spirit Lake Nation, quoted Cramer as saying, "Tribal governments are dysfunctional. Tribal courts are dysfunctional, and how could a non-native man get a fair trial on the reservation?"

Cramer later said his recollection of his remarks differed from Merrick's -- Moos and others present confirmed her account -- but he apologized for the forceful manner of his presentation. Merrick rejected the apology, and several Indian leaders were sharply critical of Cramer.

Purdon would not comment on Cramer's remarks or the reaction to them. He said he suggested the joint op-ed piece to Moos recently as they discussed ways to "educate the public about the positives that can come" from the new legislation.

Domestic violence, specifically violence against women, is at "crisis" levels on reservations, he said, and the expanded federal act could substantially improve the safety of Indian women by making it easier to prosecute offenders.

"The alarming rate of domestic violence offenses against American Indian women is an issue that should trouble all North Dakotans," the two write.

"According to a 2011 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 46 percent of Native women surveyed have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, a rate among the highest of any race or ethnicity surveyed."

Also, according to the Justice Department, "much of the violent victimization experienced by American Indian women is committed by non-Indians."

Rights of accused

Dealing with the problem is complicated by the "jurisdictional tangle that arises when a non-Indian perpetrator commits an act of domestic violence" against an Indian on the reservation.

As expanded, VAWA "will allow qualified tribal courts to exercise criminal jurisdiction over certain non-Indians who commit domestic violence offenses on reservation lands."

That authority "was deliberately crafted to strongly protect the rights of the accused" by limiting tribal courts' jurisdiction to non-Indians who live on the reservation, are employed there or are married to or dating an American Indian who lives on the reservation or is a tribal member.

Participating courts must ensure defendants' access to licensed public defenders and law-trained judges. They also must make the tribe's criminal laws publicly available, provide a record of proceedings and guarantee "full due process" to the accused.

Purdon also notes that the reauthorized act requires that jurors for cases involving non-Indian criminal defendants be drawn from a pool that includes "a fair mix of Indian and non-Indian jurors," which tribes might accomplish through an arrangement with counties within which the reservations lie.

Non-Indian defendants who believe their rights have not been protected in tribal courts may seek relief in federal court.

"This enhanced jurisdiction under VAWA is voluntary for each tribe," Purdon and Moos write, and while some "will surely enhance their court systems" to meet the due process requirements, some may choose to demure.

Congress set a two-year waiting period before the tribal provisions go into effect, though tribes that believe they're ready earlier may be designated pilot projects.

Standing Rock

In the interview, Purdon said he was at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation on Tuesday and spoke with members of the tribal court there.

"They're very close to being able to implement this," he said. "They have strong law-licensed judges, prosecutors and public defenders. Courts on some other reservations are further away. We want to encourage them to work toward what Standing Rock has."

But "nobody is going to trial on this until that protection is in place," he said.

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