The Museum of Ojibwa Culture in St. Ignace, Michigan. Photo: Bobak Ha'Eri

Michigan's highest court accepts case affecting tribe's status as 'local' government

Is the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians a "local" government under Michigan law? That's a question the state's highest will soon be answering.

In an order issued on Wednesday, the Michigan Supreme Court agreed to hear Fred Paquin v City of St. Ignace​. At issue is whether Fred Paquin, a tribal citizen who was convicted of a federal crime while serving in tribal government, can run for public office in the city of St. Ignace.

Under state law, a person who has been convicted of a crime while serving in "local, state, or federal government" cannot run for office . Tribal government is not mentioned at all.

The Michigan Court of Appeals, however, held that the Sault Tribe is a "local" government because it retains authority in "matters of local self-government," a phrase that comes from Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, a well-known U.S. Supreme Court case.

Although the Michigan court acknowledged the tribe's sovereign status, Paquin says the decision "fails to uphold that sovereignty and actually, notwithstanding their opinion to the contrary, diminishes or undermines the tribe's inherent sovereign authority."

The city of St. Ignace filed a brief opposing review of the decision, as did the state attorney general.

Applying the state law at issue in Paquin's case "does not violate the Sault Tribe’s sovereignty over its land and members," the attorney general's brief stated.

Separately, the attorney general issued a legal opinion which includes tribal government in the definition of "local." The Michigan appeals court relied in part on the opinion in arriving at its decision last October.

Paquin was serving as the tribe's police chief and on the tribe's board of directors when he was accused of stealing federal funds from the tribe's police department. He was supposed to go to trial in early 2010 but pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States by dishonest means and was sentenced to 12 months’ and one day in prison, followed by two years of supervised release. He also was ordered to pay $231,785.03 in restitution, to the federal government, for stealing the funds.

After completing his sentence "in complete satisfaction," Paquin said in his application to the Michigan Supreme Court, he tried to run for office in St. Ignace on two occasions but was denied. He filed his lawsuit after being denied a spot on the ballot on his second try.

Nearly one-third of the population in St. Ignace is Native, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The Sault Tribe has land in the city and operates a casino there as well.

Oral arguments in the case have yet to be scheduled. The Associated Press said a hearing is expected in the coming months.

Read More on the Story:
Dispute Over Election, Tribe Catches Supreme Court’s Eye (The Associated Press May 25, 2018)

Michigan Court of Appeals Decision:
Paquin v. City of Ignace (October 19, 2017)

Related Stories:
Michigan appeals court classifies Sault Tribe government as 'local' in new decision (October 24, 2017)