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Cantwell stresses importance of judicial picks
TUESDAY, JUNE 17, 2003

The Washington senator who defeated noted sovereignty foe Slade Gorton with the help of Indian voters urged tribal leaders on Monday to advocate for judicial nominees who respect Indian rights.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, spoke at the mid-year session of the National Congress of American Indians, being held on the Gila River Reservation in Arizona this week. Citing recent decisions limiting tribal authority, she called on conference attendees to become more active in what has become a high stakes battle to shape the federal court system.

"We should demand a judiciary that understands that tribal sovereignty views are in the mainstream of America and deserve protection," she told NCAI.

Cantwell said the debate will become heightened should the Supreme Court see a vacancy. Although no member has announced his or her retirement, she believes it is possible that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist could leave, handing the reins to Justice Antonin Scalia, whose views on tribal law have drawn criticism from Indian advocates.

"As we know, Mr. Scalia has been a key figure in making decisions eroding tribal sovereignty," Cantwell observed.

"We cannot have tribal sovereignty basically changed and erased by what this new court may do in the future," she added.

In the wake of a string of Supreme Court rulings handed down in 2001, tribal leaders launched a project to examine the federal judiciary. The effort is part of NCAI's larger campaign to protect tribal sovereignty through legislation, review of litigation and public awareness.

Tex Hall, president of NCAI and chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota, said it was extremely important for tribes to review the track record of President Bush's picks. Speaking to reporters at a press conference yesterday, he cited knowledge of Indian law, respect for sovereignty and an understanding of the federal-tribal trust relationship as qualities to look for in a nominee.

"Their overall understanding of the federal Indian trust responsibility and whether they will uphold it . . . is a very critical piece," he said.

"Indian Country recognizes you have to get involved very early before a nomination happens," added Jackie Johnson, NCAI's executive director, who said tribes are championing their own picks. "We also have to start scouting around for Native candidates to be considered, and start getting our folks to understand how to get involved in that process to be considered."

In her speech, Cantwell voiced support for legislation by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), vice-chairman of the Indian committee, that will correct some of the negative decisions. "If we continue to see this out of the courts then we are going to have to look to Congress to take action," she said.

During her 2000 campaign, Cantwell, a former corporate executive for an Internet company, was backed by most tribal leaders in Washington. She sailed to a narrow victory over former senator Slade Gorton, who opposed tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians.

For a short time after joining the Senate in January 2001, Cantwell served on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which considers the federal court nominees. She often asked nominees about their support for tribal sovereignty.

Relevant Links:
Sen. Maria Cantwell -' http://cantwell.senate.gov
Senate Judiciary Committee - http://judiciary.senate.gov
Federal Judicial Nominees, DOJ - http://www.usdoj.gov/olp/nominations.htm

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