Proposed legislation regarding tribal court judgments raises concern
Published: Sunday, March 17, 2013 at 3:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 18, 2013 at 2:38 p.m.
Proposed legislation to make it easier for tribal court judgments to be enforced in California courts is raising concern among critics who fear it will erode the rights of non-Indians.
State Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, last month introduced SB406, which is supposed to simplify and clarify the process by which tribal court civil judgments are recognized and enforced.
"Citizens need to know that in a tribal court, you are not necessarily protected by the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution or the California Constitution," warned Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand up for California, a gambling watchdog group that monitors Indian casinos.
She sees the legislation as another step in a long-term plan toward tribes becoming "nations" with the ability to regulate all people within their territories.
But a spokeswoman for Evans said the bill is "very technical" and would streamline only the way tribal judgments are dealt with in state courts.
"It's simply to make procedural changes in existing law to reduce duplicative litigation," said Teala Schaff, Evans' communications director. "It's not very sexy at all."
State courts generally respect the decisions of tribal courts and will enforce them upon request, as long as fair procedures were followed, according to the Judicial Council of California.
"They already do this. It's not giving them (tribes) more or less rights," Schaff said of the Senate bill. "It doesn't take away rights from California citizens."
Evans is chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is evaluating the bill. A hearing date has not yet been set.
There are 110 federally recognized tribes in California. Each is sovereign, with powers of internal self government, including the authority to develop and operate a court system. There are 22 tribal courts with several others under development, according to the state Judicial Council.
The proposed legislation grew out of a two-year effort launched by former state Chief Justice Ron George to improve the working relationship between state and tribal courts and focus on areas of mutual concern.
Currently, a party seeking enforcement of a civil tribal court judgment in state Superior Court must do so under the Uniform Foreign-Country Money Judgments Recognition Act. It's a time-consuming and expensive process in which parties sometimes unnecessarily re-litigate what has already been decided by the tribal court, according to the state Judicial Council.
Evans' bill specifies the information that must be filed to enforce a tribal court judgment in state court as well as the notices and timeline for parties to respond.
It would apply to tribal court money judgments, orders for possession or sale of property and civil injunctive relief orders.
It does not apply to taxes, fines or proceedings subject to probate.
Tribes, including Lake County's Robinson Rancheria of Pomo, have urged passage of such a law to "summarily recognize and enforce Tribal Court judgments," so they won't have to re-litigate issues in state court, costing "needless time and money."
But others, including a Southern California homeowners' group that has been involved in a protracted dispute with a tribe, have registered opposition to the bill with the Judiciary Committee.
"Tribal courts exist to support tribal government. Therefore, when a non-Indian party adverse to the tribe is forced to undergo jurisdiction of a tribal court, he simply cannot be afforded impartiality by definition," stated Roger French, an Irvine resident and president of the West Bank Homeowners Association.
The association is at odds with the Colorado River Indian Tribe over land along the California-Arizona border over whether properties along the river are part of the reservation or part of a riparian area.
Despite state and federal court findings that he said supports his group's rights, French said the tribe has confiscated properties and upheld evictions against members of his association. The tribal court also awarded all damages sought by the tribe, including $200,000 in attorneys fees, according to French.
"The ultimate award will put me in financial ruin if SB 406 becomes law," he said in a letter to the Judiciary Committee.
Schmit, director of Stand Up for California, said she is concerned that casino patron disputes will end up in tribal courts, which she also said tend to favor a tribe's interests.
She notes that the Graton Rancheria, which is building a casino in Rohnert Park, has language in its state compact stating patron disputes will be decided by binding arbitration. But the tribe also a clause allowing it in the future to establish a tribal court to hear such disputes.
Dan Pone, a senior attorney with the Judicial Council, defended SB 406, saying it will not change substantive law or the ability to contest tribal rulings.
"A lot of people believe the bill does a lot of things it does not do," he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or email@example.com
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