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Michigan tribes oppose Bush nominee to federal court

More than half of Michigan's federally recognized tribes moved Friday to oppose one of President Bush's judicial nominees.

The six tribes wrote a letter to Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) and Sen. Carl Levin (D) to voice their opposition to Robert Jonker. Citing his role in a slew of anti-tribal litigation, they called the attorney "an unsuitable candidate for a lifetime appointment to the federal court."

Jonker, the tribes noted, has been representing several anti-gaming groups in their fight to block Michigan tribes from opening casinos. The lawsuits have challenged the ability of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take land into trust and have delayed gaming projects for several years.

But the federal courts have rejected nearly every single challenge as meritless, the tribes said. In a recent decision, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the BIA to take land in trust for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, one of the signatories to the letter.

According to the tribes, "Jonker's ethics, motivations, and alliances ... reveal a bias against Indian tribes and raise serious questions regarding his fitness to serve as a federal district court judge."

The letter marks the first time Michigan tribes have mobilized against a judicial nominee. Historically, tribes across the country have not played a role in the selection and consideration of federal judges.

But with the stakes rising in sovereignty, gaming, land-into-trust, land claims and other disputes, Indian Country has joined the battle over the makeup of the bench. Prompted by tribes in California, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Gaming Association and the California Nations Indian Gaming Association successfully defeated one of Bush's appellate court nominees last year.

Just two weeks ago, the White House rekindled the debate by submitting Bill Myers' name for a spot on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. As for Jonker, Bush sent the nomination to the Senate on June 28.

In their letter, the Michigan tribes ask their senators to persuade the White House to withdraw Jonker's name. Bush had done that with Myers after the anti-tribal and anti-environmetnal campaign in 2005.

In the alternative, the Michigan tribes want their senators to block Jonker from moving forward. Senate Democrats were able to filibuster Myers in 2004.

Jonker's role as an attorney in the lawsuits isn't the only quibbling point for the tribes. They cite his membership in the anti-gaming group 23 is Enough, named for the number of casinos in the state.

The group has disseminated information characterized as "anti-Native American" by state lawmakers. An e-mail to supporters included materials from a man whose web site includes a depiction of an Indian scalping a white man in front a tribal casino.

The signatories to the letter are: the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, the Little River Band of Odawa Indians, the Match-e-be-nash-she-wish Band of Pottawatomi, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, the Hannahville Indian Community and the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe.

Michigan's other tribes are considering signing on to the campaign, according to a spokesperson for the Match-e-be-nash-she-wish Band.

Tribal Letter:
Opposition to Robert Jonker (September 8, 2006)

Relevant Links:
Judicial nominees, Department of Justice site -