Another tribal sovereignty foe advances into Donald Trump's Cabinet

Native women participate in the Women's March on Washington on January 21, 2017. Photo: Emilee Guevara‎

Despite objections from Democrats, Republicans in the Senate are working hard to help President Donald Trump fill out his Cabinet, even those who have actively opposed Indian interests.

The latest pick under scrutiny is Scott Pruitt for the Environmental Protection Agency. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), a former chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, advanced his nomination even though no Democrats showed up for a business meeting on Thursday morning.

"The people spoke and now it is time to set up a functioning government," Barrasso said from his new position as the leader of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Barrasso, who had to suspend the committee's rules in order to send the nomination to the Senate floor, criticized his colleagues on the other side of the aisle for boycotting the vote. But Democrats said they had no choice because Pruitt, whom they have label as "extreme," failed to respond to questions about climate change, energy and other issues under EPA's purview.

"I am disappointed that our majority has decided to ignore our concerns and those of the American people, and suspend the committee's rules in an effort to expedite Mr. Pruitt's nomination, but we have to stand our ground in our pursuit of the truth and in fulfillment of our Constitutional duty with respect to nominations," Sen. Tom Carper (D-Delaware), the top Democrat on the panel, said in a press release.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) speaks at a Domestic Violence Awareness Month ceremony in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on October 27, 2016. Photo: Attorney General Pruitt

Some Indian advocates also have considered Pruitt to be extreme. As Oklahoma's attorney general, he fought tribes on jurisdiction, immunity and taxation fronts, even attempting to impose his views in disputes that went beyond the state's borders.

A brief he submitted 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, argued that tribes lack authority over non-Indians. If he is confirmed as head of the EPA, he would be required to consider similar questions of jurisdiction for tribes seeking to regulate air and water quality on their homelands across the nation.

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. While the justices eventually rejected his petition, leaving the 10th Circuit ruling in place, his lawsuit to this day has kept the small tribe from pursuing an economic development opportunity open to nearly every other in the nation.

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.

Environmental Working Group on YouTube: Correcting Scott Pruitt's Environmental Record - Casey Camp-Horinek

"To me, Scott Pruitt is the antithesis of what we need in the EPA," Casey Camp-Horinek, a citizen of the Ponca Tribe in Oklahoma, said in a video produced by Environmental Working Group.

Camp-Horinek, who participated in a forum hosted by Senate Democrats last month, said Pruitt has failed to hold corporations responsible for threatening her tribe's homelands. And Jason Aamodt, an attorney who has represented tribes on environmental and other issues, accused Pruitt of misleading lawmakers about his enforcement record in Oklahoma.

"He should really be recalled to have to answer questions about what his enforcement record is," Aamodt said at the forum, "because it's not good."

Pruitt isn't the only Trump pick whose tribal record has been questioned. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) admitted that he opposes tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians and refused to say whether he would enforce the tribal provisions of the Violence Against Women Act if he is confirmed to lead the Department of Justice.

Democrats were able to delay a committee vote on Sessions but Republicans were able to advance his nomination at a business meeting on Wednesday. Since the GOP controls the Senate, he is eventually expected to be confirmed as Attorney General.

Still, it's been slow-going for Trump. As the president entered his second full week in office, the White House on Monday said 17 of his nominees were still waiting to be confirmed, far more than his two predecessors at the same time in their respective tenures.

So far, the Senate has confirmed Rex Tillerson for the Department of State, James Mattis at the Department of Defense, James Mattis for the Department of Homeland Security, Elaine Chao for the Department of Transportation, Nikki Haley as Ambassador to the United Nations and Mike Pompeo as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

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