Pawnee Nation approves separate judiciary in referendum


PAWNEE, Okla. - In response to concerns of citizens of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, the tribe's election commission held a referendum vote June 14 to reach a decision on creating a separate judiciary and to address five important constitutional amendments.

According to the tribe's executive director, Dawna Hare, separation of the tribe's courts is in keeping with current trends among tribes across Indian country.

''A separate and autonomous judicial branch will allow the Pawnee Nation to expand our economic development efforts and more fully exercise our sovereignty.''

Over the past several years, economic development and expansion have been two of the tribe's primary objectives. In addition, George E. Howell, president of the Pawnee Business Council, said that the Pawnee people have been clamoring for a more organized and viable system of governance.

''The Pawnee people ... want more accountability for their elected officials and established processes for the Pawnee Business Council to follow.''

Following a recent review of the Pawnee Constitution, the tribe's Governing Documents Committee saw a need to address issues concerning the governance, infrastructure and administration of the Pawnee Nation. The amendments, which were developed over the past 18 months by the committee, deal with matters regarding vacancies in elected offices, the recall and suspension of elected officials, and the separation of the courts.

All five amendments, which were designed to place greater decision-making power in the hands of tribal members, were passed by referendum.

Amendment 1 was approved in a majority vote of 170 - 88 and will revise the constitution's Article VI, Section 1, which deals with vacancies in elected offices. The article currently permits the tribe's vice president to automatically ascend to the office of president in the event of a presidential vacancy. Other vacancies are currently filled by the president from a roster of previous electoral candidates on approval of the Pawnee Business Council.

The amendment's new language specifies that such an arrangement would only be temporary, and the vice president would only be called upon to fulfill the president's duties until a new president could be elected by a majority of the tribe's voters in a special election.

Amendment 1 also requires the business council to elect a temporary vice president from the council membership to serve until the president is selected. Following that election, the temporary vice president will return to his or her previous position.

Additionally, the first amendment provides similar guidelines for vacancies in other elected offices and also outlines and defines what constitutes a ''vacancy.''

Amendment 2, which passed 141 - 119, will lower the number of signatures required to schedule a recall election from 50 percent to 25 percent of the tribe's eligible voters.

Amendment 3, affirmed by a vote of 174 - 84, will attach a new provision to Article VII of the constitution. This new Section 3 mandates the suspension of any council member charged with a crime that would be a cause for removal from office. It also defines the terms of misconduct on the part of suspended officers, makes allowance for the suspended council member to challenge the suspension in tribal court, and promises compensation and a return to office if the defendant is found innocent.

Amendment 4, sanctioned by a majority of 147 - 112 votes, will revise the constitution's process for removing council members. The new, more detailed procedure is designed to better protect the civil rights of council members. Any ''removal for cause'' must be decided by first filing a petition in the tribe's District Court, and members will have right of appeals to the nation's Supreme Court.

The new provision also extensively defines what constitutes ''cause'' and describes the process of court review in such matters.

Amendment 5, approved by a margin of 165 - 95, will add a new article to the constitution that establishes the Pawnee Nation courts as an independent branch of the tribal government and protects it from manipulation. This new article defines and describes the establishment, authority and jurisdiction of the courts; designates a process for the selection of judicial officers and determines their terms of office; presents a procedure for judicial review and removal of justices and judges; and provides for funding of the courts from the annual budget.

The Pawnee Governing Documents Committee is comprised of former tribal leaders and members of the Nasharo Council, a traditional ''chief's council'' consisting of eight members representing the four bands of Pawnee: the Chaui, Kitkehahki, Pitahawirata and Skidi.

The Nasharo Council, as stated by the tribe's constitution, ''has the right to review all acts of the Pawnee Business Council regarding the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma membership.''

''These amendments were developed by the people,'' Howell said. ''This is an important time for our nation.''