A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers reintroduced legislation Thursday to provide more resources for tribal law enforcement. An issue she says has become more pressing as Congress begins to consider how to respond to a July Supreme Court case that complicates criminal jurisdiction between states and tribes.
The bill, introduced in the House by Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego and Senate by Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, both Democrats, aims to improve data sharing between tribes and state and federal agencies.
It would also allow the federal agency for Indian affairs to conduct background checks on tribal police applicants and establish grant programs to coordinate efforts in missing and murdered persons cases.
Representatives Sharice Davids, a Democrat from Kansas, Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, and Dan Newhouse, a Republican from Washington, supported the House bill.
The bulk of the bill was introduced in 2019, but its supporters say the issue is more important now following the US Supreme Court ruling in the Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta case this summer.
This verdict held that states had concurrent jurisdiction with tribes and the federal government to prosecute non-Native Americans accused of committing crimes on tribal lands, an extension of state authority that some saw as at the expense of tribal sovereignty.
The decision “tipped nearly 200 years of precedent,” New Mexico Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández told a subcommittee on indigenous peoples’ natural resources on Tuesday Listen Investigating the implications of the ruling, Source New Mexico reported.
Under the tribal interstate agreements with the federal government, the states had no authority to prosecute alleged crimes on tribal lands.
The expansion of state authority came at the expense of tribal power, critics of the ruling say.
“Ultimately, the court’s decision limits the ability of tribal nations to seek self-sufficiency and build strong governments,” said Teri Gobin, leader of Washington state’s Tulalip tribes. “And it disregards the link between sovereignty and security.”
Gallego called the decision “another blow to tribal sovereignty.”
However, others have argued that adding another layer of law enforcement might only strengthen public safety.
“The prosecution would complement the federal agencies, not supplant the federal agencies,” Mithun Mansinghani, Oklahoma Attorney General who represented the winning side in the Castro-Huerta case, said at the hearing. “The state that is forced to turn a blind eye to non-Native Americans abusing Native Americans serves no one’s best interests—not in the interests of the state, not in the interests of the federal government, and not in the interests of the tribes.”
Leger Fernandez, chair of the House subcommittee on indigenous peoples, said the goal of the hearing is only to start a conversation about the implications of the decision, not to support “any particular solution.”
GAO report required
The bill introduced on Thursday would not address the constitutional issues raised by the Supreme Court decision. Former US Senator Mark Udall and former Congressman Deb Haaland, both Democrats from New Mexico, put forward a similar version in 2019 before the case even went to court.
The bill would require a report from the Government Accountability Office to review evidence-gathering issues faced by state and local police in tribal cases.
Most billing address issues are long-standing, Cortez Masto said.
“The Indian country has experienced obstacles to justice for too long because law enforcement agencies do not have what they need,” she said in a statement. “This is unacceptable and this bill will help support law enforcement and ensure crimes can be prosecuted and offenders brought to justice.”
As tribal agencies deal with a perceived assault on their sovereignty, they need more federal funding, which the bill could provide, Gallego said.
“The federal government has for years failed to provide the Indian country with the necessary resources to ensure public safety and to assist tribal law enforcement agencies,” he said in a statement. “In the wake of the Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta ruling, finding solutions that support tribal justice systems is more important than ever.”
Tribal law enforcement agencies can struggle to hire and retain sufficient staff, Gallego said at Tuesday’s hearing. The bill would allow the BIA to conduct background checks on applicants to expedite hiring. And in an effort to retain officers, it would direct federal agencies to ensure tribal law enforcement officers have access to counseling.
It would also require a GAO report to identify staffing needs and propose how the DOJ could meet them. And it would require a Home Office study of staffing and infrastructure needs.
It would also approve a five-year DOJ grant program to create statewide or regional centers to track missing persons cases.
The bill comes a day after the Justice Department announced it would provide nearly $250 million in grants to tribal law enforcement and justice.