Banished Snoqualmie tribal members win federal court ruling
Nine Snoqualmie tribal members banished by their tribal council last spring have won a federal court ruling declaring they were inappropriately denied their civil right to be heard in the banishment proceeding against them. Their banishment is partially suspended, while the tribe decides what to do next.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Nine Snoqualmie tribal members banished by their tribal council last spring were kicked out without due process, a federal-court judge ruled.
In his ruling handed down in U.S. District Court late Thursday, Judge James L. Robart set aside the full banishment of the tribal members, including former tribal-council members and the former tribal chairman, and placed a time limit of 90 days on their social banishment, which bars them from visiting tribal lands or interacting with other tribal members.
During the 90-day period, the tribe may consider whether it wants to redo its banishment proceedings against the tribal members, or let the matter go.
The tribe had argued that the suit had no place in court and that as a sovereign nation it alone had jurisdiction over matters of punishment and membership.
Tribal attorney Pete Connick said Friday he did not know if the tribe would appeal the ruling, which he noted was narrowly construed.
"The social banishment remains in place," he said. "As far as we are concerned, they have provided an avenue for the tribe to reconsider, and they can determined what they want to do."
Rob Roy Smith, attorney for the banished tribal members, said the case set an important precedent.
"This is a first-of-a-kind ruling," Smith said. "It is very significant not only for these Snoqualmie tribal members, but for Indian Country.
"I think the precedent is that tribes need to respect the civil rights of their members, and tribal governments need to know they can be held accountable if they fail to provide their members with the right to due process."
The banished tribal members argued they had not received adequate notice of the banishment proceedings against them, nor had they been able to defend themselves before their accusers, among other violations.
The banishment conflict flared over a disputed election, in May 2007, as the tribe of about 650 members, recently recognized by the federal government, was preparing to open a $375 million casino on Interstate 90 just a half-hour's drive from Seattle. The casino opened in November.
At the height of the controversy last spring, some tribal leaders accused the banished of having run an illegal shadow government.
At one point, the tribe had two councils, each contending to be the only legitimate leaders of the Snoqualmies, with one group meeting at the tribal center and another meeting at libraries or private homes.
Carolyn Lubenau, who helped lead the fight for reinstatement, said she was grateful for the ruling. "This shows that Native Americans do have civil rights, but we have a ways to go.
"The ball is in their court. Do they want to pursue these charges?" she said of the tribe. "If they do, I hope we can address it in a meaningful way and we can defend ourselves.
"I hope this will be a growing pain, and that we can let it get behind us."
Bill Sweet, former tribal chairman later banished, had a one-word reaction: "Wow."
His hope for the future was simple: "that we get back together and move forward. I want to be real joyous; it's not just for me, it's a bigger win in the native community."
The judge was careful not to tread into areas the courts have long regarded as the sole purview of tribes, as sovereign nations. The only issue the court ruled on directly was whether the banished in this instance were properly notified and had a chance to represent themselves before their accusers.
Nonetheless, the ruling expanded application of an area of the law, the writ of habeas corpus, beyond where it has typically been applied, to reach the conclusion that the tribal members had in some instances been unlawfully deprived of their rights as defined under the Indian Civil Rights Act.
In that regard, the ruling marked an expansion of the federal courts into tribal jurisdiction, at least in certain circumstances.
A key question is what happens next. Tribal members, including Lubenau, who also had their enrollment "clarified" by the tribe (which concluded she was not legitimately enrolled as a Snoqualmie Indian) can't address that issue until the social banishment is lifted.
And it remains to be seen whether the tribe will act to reinstate its banishment of the members once the 90-day period passes.
For now, members such as Sweet, whose enrollment was not challenged, have some benefits as members reinstated. But they still can't go on tribal lands or participate in tribal events.
Tribal elections, for instance, will be held by their tribe in a few days, and despite the ruling, the banished can't attend.
"We have a long road ahead of us," Sweet said.
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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