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National tribal judge group questions firing in disenrollment case






The Nooksack Tribe of Washington is trying to remove 306 people from the rolls. Photo from The Nooksack 306 / Facebook

The National American Indian Court Judges Association is expressing concerns about a closely-watched disenrollment dispute in Washington state.

The group isn't taking a position on underlying issue -- whether the Nooksack Tribe can remove more than 300 people from the rolls. But the board of directors is questioning whether the chief judge on the reservation was fired because she ruled against the tribal council.

"If that proves correct, the action represents a clear threat to judicial independence," the board said in a statement.

Tribal leaders have admitted they fired Susan Alexander because her rulings represented a threat to their sovereignty. But when local media asked for clarification, they were met with confusing and conflicting responses.

Chairman Bob Kelley told The Bellingham Herald that Alexander was trying to change "how courts work in Indian Country" but then said she was ousted because she waived the tribe's sovereign immunity. Council member Katherine Canete offered a similar reasoning to The Seattle Times but backtracked when she was told that the judge's most recent ruling never mentioned immunity.

“I’m trying to think of the best way to put it into words. I’d have to think about that," Canete told the Times. The paper said she never explained why she thought the tribe's immunity was at issue.

The tribe has indeed lost a series of rulings involving a group known as The Nooksack 306. But Alexander's decisions have largely focused on addressing due process rights and voting rights under tribal law. None have questioned the tribe's ability to remove people from the rolls or the tribe's immunity.

The tribe posted advertisements for a new chief judge after Alexander was fired. The application period closed May 6, according to one ad on Craigslist.

"The Chief Judge is responsible for fair and impartial hearings and deciding judicial matters within the jurisdiction of the Nooksack Indian Tribal Court pursuant to the Nooksack Tribal Law and Order Code, by laws, ordinances, regulations and applicable Federal and local laws," the ad stated.

The National American Indian Court Judges Association is a membership group of tribal court judges and tribal court personnel.

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