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DC Circuit allows suit against Cherokee chief in Freedmen case





The chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma can be sued by Freedmen descendants, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today.

The tribe cannot be sued due to sovereign immunity, the court noted. But U.S. Supreme Court precedents allow individual tribal officials to be sued even without the tribe's involvement, the decision stated.

"Applying the precedents that permit suits against government officials in their official capacities, we conclude that this suit may proceed against the Principal Chief in his official capacity, without the Cherokee Nation itself as a party," Judge Brett Michael Kavanaugh wrote in the unanimous ruling.

The decision means the Descendants Of Freedmen Of The Five Civilized Tribes will be able to move forward in a suit that challenges the denial of citizenship to the Freedmen, who are the descendants of former slaves. The Freedmen say they were promised citizenship by an 1866 treaty.

A different lawsuit filed by another group of Freedmen is pending in federal court in Oklahoma. In that case, the Obama administration is asking for a ruling on the merits of the treaty.

DC Circuit Decision:
Vann v. DOI (December 14, 2012)

District Court Decision:
Vann v. Salazar (September 30, 2011)

Earlier D.C. Circuit Decision:
Vann v. Kempthorne (July 29, 2008)

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Cherokee Nation awaits decision in Freedmen citizenship dispute (7/3)
Freedmen attorney claims Abramoff influenced BIA position (3/14)
Opinion: Tribes in Oklahoma struggle to deal with Freedmen (3/8)
Cherokee Nation won't drop lawsuit over Freedmen citizenship (11/29)