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News from the Northeast

Supreme Court denies Maliseet/Micmac appeal

HOULTON AND PRESQUE ISLE, Maine - The U.S. Supreme Court rejected petitions from the Aroostock Band of Micmac Indians and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians in a sovereignty case involving jurisdiction over employment issues on tribal lands.

The Supreme Court denied the request without comment, listing the petitions in a 16-page document issued Nov. 26 and rejecting requests to review to numerous other appeals.

The petitions were filed Sept. 14 and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review, and ultimately overturn, a panel ruling by 1st Circuit Court of Appeals issued last spring, which effectively terminated the two bands' sovereign rights to self-government and control over how they conduct day-to-day business on their lands.

The two cases were ruled on simultaneously April 17 in a 2 - 1 decision. The case emerged from non-tribal members filing employment discrimination complaints with a state agency against the Micmacs. The band asked the state to dismiss the complaints, arguing that it had no jurisdiction over the band on internal tribal matters and that it was protected from the complaints by its inherent tribal sovereignty and sovereign immunity.

The 1st Circuit majority decision ruled that the federal Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 and the Aroostook Band of Micmac Settlement Act of 1991 subjected the band to total state civil and criminal jurisdiction, including how tribes handle employment in their businesses on their lands. The two judges then applied their decision to the Maliseets.

In doing so, however, the panel ignored the fact that the Micmac Band was not a party to the Maine Implementing Act, which claims state jurisdiction over the region's other Wabanaki Confederacy tribes - the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Maliseet.

The Micmac Band gained congressional recognition in 1991 - 11 years after the other tribes were federally acknowledged and signed onto the Maine Settlement Act, which settled the Passamaquoddy and Penobscots' land claims to one-third of the state.

Even though the Maliseet Band is not subject to Maine state law under the Settlement Act, the circuit court treated it as if it were.

The case could kick back into state court for adjudication on the substantive allegations, but meanwhile, a Tribal-State Work Group is working on amendments to the Maine Implementing Act for the legislature to adopt next year. The amendments would clarify Congress' original intent to reiterate the tribes' inherent sovereignty on tribal lands.

Mashantucket contests union vote

MASHANTUCKET, Conn. - The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation filed objections Dec. 3 with the National Labor Relations Board challenging a union vote at Foxwoods Resort Casino, claiming a lack of federal government jurisdiction, and various procedural violations and misconduct.

The United Auto Workers held a union election for dealers at Foxwoods Nov. 24. The vote to form a union passed by 1,289 - 852.

The filing is the first step in what is likely to be a long legal battle in the federal courts to preserve tribal sovereignty and jurisdiction on tribal lands.

Mashantucket Chairman Michael Thomas sent a letter to the media, explaining the tribe's reasons for challenging the election.

The union has ''an absolute right'' to organize at Foxwoods, but only under tribal law, Thomas said. The UAW and other unions were asked to organize under the tribe's laws, available online at www.mptnlaw.com, but so far they have refused to do so.

''Thus, the Tribal Nation is put in the unfortunate position of either disregarding its own laws or continuing to take whatever steps are necessary to preserve its right of self-government and have union issues addressed under the tribal laws which should be the case,'' Thomas wrote.

Thomas noted that the NLRB had recognized for more than 30 years that the National Labor Relations Act did not apply to Indian tribes; but in a recent case involving a California tribe, a circuit court panel ruled 2 - 1 that federal labor laws applied to the tribe's casino employees. The case involved a narrowly applied definition of the casino as a commercial operation and did not address wider issues of tribal sovereignty.

''For Indian country, there is no more important principle than that of tribal self-government. Millions of American Indians before us have gone to battle and have given their lives in order to preserve tribal autonomy and self-government,'' Thomas wrote.

''All of Indian country is looking to this Tribe now to preserve those rights of self-government; not to desert them, but do all that we can within the law to try to preserve these rights.''

The NLRB has rejected the tribal nation's assertion of sovereignty twice in the leadup to the November election.

St. Regis Mohawk claim against Harrah's moves forward

AKWASASNE, N.Y. - A federal judge has tossed out Harrah's motion to dismiss a $2.8 billion judgment in a class action suit filed against the casino giant by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.

Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas J. McAvoy issued the ruling Dec. 3, denying a motion by Harrah's Operating Company Inc. to dismiss the case. The ruling means the tribe's case will now move forward toward litigation in federal court. Judge McAvoy has scheduled a hearing for Jan. 18 at the district court in Syracuse.

The $2.8 billion judgment, which was issued in tribal court, found Harrah's predecessor, Park Place Entertainment, had unlawfully interfered in the tribal government's efforts to build a casino at Monticello Gaming and Raceway in the Catskill Mountains in New York state.

The tribal court issued a $1.8 billion default judgment against Harrah's for compensatory and punitive damages in March 2001. Last July, the tribal court affirmed its previous judgment and added $1 billion in interest charges because Harrah's representative had not shown up in court.

The tribe's attorney, former New York Attorney General Dennis Vacco, filed an enforcement action against Harrah's in U.S. District Court for Northern New York last summer. Harrah's moved to dismiss the enforcement action last August.

The ruling is a victory for all tribal nations because it reiterates the authority of tribal courts, said Chief Lorraine White, one of the tribe's three chiefs.

''The ruling by Judge McAvoy is important not only for what it signals to the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe - that its tribal judicial institutions merit respect - but that the federal courts recognize the courts of all Native sovereign nations, and ... decisions made by those courts.''

Harrah's did not return a call seeking comment.