Sen. Slade Gorton clashed with Yakama Indian leaders Thursday over his comparison of a Haitian immigrant’s beating by New York City police to a Washington state man’s death in a traffic accident with a tribal officer.
Also Thursday, the attorneys general of Oregon and seven other states urged President Clinton to make good on his threat to veto proposals by Gorton that they say threaten self-government of Indian tribes.
Gorton, who is pressing to open tribes to civil lawsuits for the first time, said tribal officers should be subject to the same threat of lawsuits as the city whose officers were accused of “severely brutalizing” the immigrant, Abner Louima.
It marks the latest flare-up between the Washington Republican and tribal leaders opposed to his proposal to end the sovereign immunity that protects tribal governments from civil suits.
“In what appears to be an attempt to justify a far-reaching amendment … the senior senator from Washington has chosen to exploit the victimization of Abner Louima and a tragic car accident that occurred on our reservation,” the Yakama Indian Nation said in a statement Thursday from Toppenish, Wash.
Gorton was joined at a news conference in his office earlier Thursday by Bernard Gamache, whose 18-year-old son, Jered, died when a Yakama tribal officer crashed into Jered’s truck on the Yakama reservation in 1994.
Gorton said Louima and his attorneys plan to file a $465 million civil suit against New York City and the police who beat him.
“What makes the case of Jered Gamache different from the case of Abner Louima? Tribal sovereign immunity,” the senator told reporters.
“The laws should be applied to everyone. No government should be above the law,” he said.
Bernard Gamache said the immunity has prevented his family from seeking compensation from the tribe in a state or federal court.
But the Yakamas’ statement said Gamache, in fact, has filed a civil suit that is set to go to trial Dec. 8 in U.S. District Court in Spokane. That suit was filed under the Federal Court Claims Act, the same statute under which they would pursue a claim if a federal law enforcement officer were involved in the death.
It names the federal government as the defendant and maintains the tribal police department was under contract to the U.S. Interior Department.
Gorton’s proposal, attached to the Interior Department spending bill expected to come to a vote in the Senate next week, would waive sovereign immunity for tribes for a one-year test period.
Clinton administration officials have warned that the president would veto such a bill.
Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers and six others joined New Mexico Attorney General Tom Udall in a letter to Clinton Thursday, urging opposition to Gorton’s “outrageous, far-reaching” amendment.