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Shoshones will vote on tribal court issues

Dec 13, 2016 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

The general council could choose to withdraw recognition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs court.

The Shoshone General Council is set to vote Saturday on whether to re-establish the Shoshone and Arapaho Tribal Court and withdraw recognition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs court that was established in October.

Wes Martel, who called for the vote, said he is hopeful a quorum will be established.

He believes support for re-establishing the tribal court has grown now that "people understand the limited scope and authority" of the BIA court.

"Everybody has their right to oppose and argue against this, but I think those people ... will be in the minority once they have an understanding of the importance of the tribal court," he said.

Jurisdiction

Chief Judge John St. Clair, who has headed the tribal court since it was established in 1987, said that the BIA court's exertion of jurisdiction is significantly less than the tribal court's.

After the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, for example, the tribal court was granted jurisdiction over non-Indians who violated protection orders.

"Under the (BIA) court, that's impossible," he said.

The BIA court also does not exert jurisdiction for election disputes, or the tribes themselves, which St. Clair said makes it difficult to protect against abuses of power.

St. Clair said he also believes that the BIA judges don't have a full understanding of the reservation to best be able to serve the community.

"(They) don't know the tribes and are from other places," he said. "We have outsiders deciding cases about our children and ourselves."

Reviews

When the Shoshone Business Council withdrew recognition from the tribal court this summer, St. Clair and his staff was heavily criticized by council members for the negative program reviews the tribal court has received from the BIA in recent years.

However, St. Clair said most of those problems have been solved, and too many in the public believe that the court has the same problems it did two years ago.

In 2015, the BIA told the court it needed to make 21 corrective actions. After most were addressed, the BIA said this year that seven corrective actions still needed to be taken.

St. Clair said that almost all of these remaining issues are "out of our hands" because they involve the responsibilities of actions of both business councils.

One area in which that's not the case: Judicial salaries, which the BIA said should be lowered.

St. Clair and other judges receive salaries that are higher than the rate prescribed in the Shoshone and Arapaho Law and Order Code: St. Clair makes $114,000 each year, despite the fact that his own code dictates that judges should earn no more than $81,000, as prescribed by the federal rate for GS-12 employees.

In a letter to local BIA superintendent Norma Gourneau, St. Clair has defended his salary scale, saying the federal rate keeps "all tribes at an inferior level with state and federal courts."

"Instead of requiring us to lower salaries to what is paid by other tribes, the BIA should be trying to raise the salary levels of those other tribes so they can attract attorneys and be competitive on the market place," he said.

Vote

After the dissolution of the Joint Business Council two years ago, the BIA contracted the tribal court out to the Shoshones in 2015.

But when St. Clair issued an order to block the Shoshone Business Council's unilateral takeover of shared programs, the SBC voted to disavow the court.

Since then, some of the council's hard-liners have been voted out, and new members have voiced support for the tribal court.

The Shoshone General Council meeting is set to take place Saturday at 10 a.m. at Rocky Mountain Hall in Fort Washakie.

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