WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate on Tuesday reauthorized a federal law channeling resources to female victims of domestic violence, including those on Native American tribal lands.
It is now up to the GOP-led House of Representatives, where GOP leaders have been leery in the past of giving tribal courts the authority to prosecute non-Indian crime suspects. It could be one of several sticking points that continues to delay President Barack Obama’s signature on the law’s renewal.
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, introduced the bill with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell both voiced strong support of the bill, which was originally passed in 1994 to stiffen penalties for domestic assaults and provide federal assistance in prosecuting cases for underserved communities.
Cantwell, who chairs the Indian Affairs Committee, said Indian women are raped and assaulted at 2 ½ times the national rate, but less than 50 percent of domestic violence cases on reservations, often far from federal courts, are prosecuted. “This is about the life and death of women who need a better system to help prosecute those who are committing serious crimes against them.”
Supporters of the bill say a 1978 Supreme Court decision that denies Indian tribes the power to try non-Indian citizens makes an exception for proceedings that are acceptable to Congress. The National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women says the provision is tailored to make sure that all rights guaranteed under the Constitution are given to non-Native American defendants.
The Indian court issue is expected to be a hurdle as lawmakers try to reconcile the Senate bill with the eventual House bill. Two House Republicans – Reps. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who is of Native American heritage, and Darrell Issa of California – have been pushing a compromise that would give defendants the right to request that their trial be moved to a federal court.
Cantwell said the Senate could not afford to drag its feet on the issue, which has become an “epidemic” on tribal lands where criminals have a safe haven from federal prosecutors.
“This isn’t about politics,” Cantwell said on the Senate floor Monday. “This is about the life and death of women who need a better system.”
According to the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, there have been 41 deaths attributed to domestic violence on tribal lands in this state since 1997. Non-Indian perpetrators committed nearly half of the homicides.
The original bill attracted the support of Crapo, Murray and Cantwell, but not Idaho Republican Sen. James Risch, who said the law would overextend the reach of federal government into local affairs.