Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) speaks at a
Domestic Violence Awareness Month ceremony in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on October 27, 2016. Photo from Facebook
Republican president-elect Donald Trump has chosen a noted tribal sovereignty foe to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
As Oklahoma's attorney general, Scott Pruitt has fought tribes on jurisdiction, immunity and taxation fronts. His efforts in one major court case were so extreme that an advocate for Native women described them as "beyond disturbing."
"I am at a loss for words," Dawn Stover, the executive director of the Oklahoma Native Alliance Against Violence, told The Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribal Tribune after reading Pruitt's brief in Dollar
General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, which was one of the most closely-watched U.S. Supreme Court cases in recent history.
In another case, Pruitt sued the leaders of the Kialegee
Tribal Town for trying to build a casino on an Indian allotment.
But the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, in clear terms, said they are protected by sovereign immunity.
Despite the strong rebuke, Pruitt tried to get the Supreme Court to sanction his efforts. Even though the justices eventually rejected his petition, leaving the 10th Circuit ruling in place, his lawsuit to this day kept the small tribe from pursuing an economic development opportunity open to nearly every other in the state.
A third sovereignty dispute is ongoing. In April, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation won a major ruling that protected its businesses from state taxes.
But Pruitt has once again appealed. In briefs filed with the 10th Circuit, his office argues that the tribe's victory, which came in the form of an arbitration order that was upheld in federal court, cannot be enforced.
In a November 5 brief, Pruitt's subordinates said "it is not unheard of for states to be able to impose sales taxes on tribal sales of goods to non-members, as the United States Supreme Court specifically noted with regard to this tribe," citing a 1991 case involving the Citizen Potawatomis.
But Pruitt's views on tribal issues aren't the only ones of concern. Democrats say he is the wrong person to lead the EPA because he is trying to dismantle -- again through the courts -- the climate change programs he would be responsible for overseeing.
"Pruitt’s record is not only that of being a climate change denier, but also someone who has worked closely with the fossil fuel industry to make this country more dependent, not less, on fossil fuels," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who has emerged as a strong ally of tribes, particularly in the fight against the Dakota Access
Pipeline, said in a statement.
Climate change is a top priority for tribes and Native youth and Trump's selection of Pruitt marks a significant change in course. Many tie the issue to protection of treaty rights, sacred sites and water resources, three of the hallmarks of the #NoDAPL movement.
"We are facing the impacts of climate change," President Fawn Sharp of the Quinault Nation told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights at a listening session that took place on her tribe's reservation in Washington state in August. "Right here in our village of Taholah, we are facing very real dangers from sea level rise, intensified storms, floods, warming oceans, acidified waters and the very real danger of tsunami."
"Our people didn’t cause any of these problems, but they’re the first ones to be impacted by them," she added.
In addition to addressing climate change, the EPA has taken on a greater role in ensuring that treaties are considered during federal decision-making processes. The agency has developed guidance and a memorandum of understanding on the matter but the directives could be ignored or changed by the incoming Trump administration.
"Tribal treaty rights are the law of the land," Gina McCarthy, the outgoing administrator of the EPA, said during the White House Tribal Nations Conference in September.
Pruitt's position is subject to confirmation by the Senate. Hearings will be scheduled during the 115th Congress, which begins in January and he can count on support from some key Republicans like Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), who currently serves as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
"In his appearances before the Environment and Public Works committee, Pruitt has demonstrated that he is an expert on environmental laws and a champion of states’ roles in implementing those laws," Inhofe said in a statement.
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