WASHINGTON - Just as Indian country thought it had seen the last of Slade Gorton, former Senator from Washington state, a letter was sent to President Bush from the Senate asking that Gorton be appointed as a federal court judge.
The request was in a letter from Senate Republicans recommending Gorton for a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia or the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, courts which both hear many cases relating to Indian tribes.
Throughout his political career, Gorton has been viewed by many as anti-Indian. From his legal battles over Indian lands in Washington state as attorney general, to his attempts in the Senate to impose state taxes, extinguish sovereign immunity and diminish tribal authority, Gorton demonstrated he is a determined opponent of tribes on most issues.
The letter to Bush did not included an endorsement from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., but did include that of Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and usually a strong advocate for tribal rights.
Members of his staff said McCain refused to sign the letter based on his objections to positions Gorton has taken with regard to tribes. Campbell and his staff have yet to comment on why he signed the letter.
John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, the nation's leading Indian legal organization, based in Colorado, said that because of Gorton's past record such an appointment could hurt tribes.
"It wouldn't be good if he reached the bench," Echohawk said. "I would expect that he would not be favorably inclined to the tribal position. He has shown, based on his record over the years, that he is anti-tribal and that is not something we want to see in a judge."
Echohawk, a strong supporter of Sen. Campbell, said he was puzzled about the endorsement.
"I don't know why Ben did that," Echohawk said. "Sen. McCain didn't sign the letter and I was hoping that Sen. Campbell would do the same, but he didn't and I haven't heard why."
Gorton was narrowly defeated by freshman Democratic Maria Cantwell last November in a hotly contested election that went down to the wire. The election was decided by slightly more than 2,000 votes, a difference which some feel was made by an increase in American Indian voter turnout. Coordinated efforts by tribes in Washington state included political ads in newspapers and political spots in television markets outlining issues important to tribes and the Gorton's record on tribal and environmental issues.
On the federal bench, Gorton could oversee a number of cases involving tribal rights and may even have the chance to revisit legal ground he lost years ago as Washington tribes are again set to enter federal court.
Tribal leaders, voicing opposition, are calling on President Bush to deny the request. However, noting some positive aspects of the new controversy, tribal leaders like Alma Ransom, St. Regis Mohawk and Northeast Area vice president for the National Congress of American Indians, say the threat Gorton poses can sometimes be helpful.
"Some say that Gorton has done more than any other man to unite Indian people," Ransom said. "I hope he doesn't become a judge, but I think he has done a lot for us in bringing tribes together and making us stronger in the fight."
Gorton has remained silent on the issue and speculation on where he will ultimately end up continues. He has support from a number of key GOP leaders, including Trent Lott of Mississippi and Orrin Hatch from Utah. If appointed, many of the senators expect Gorton will be looked upon favorably in the nomination process.