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Top judge’s remarks trigger investigation request from tribe

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. – Narragansett Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas has called for an investigation of how the state and its judicial system have treated the tribe following remarks by Rhode Island’s Supreme Court chief justice, Frank Williams, that Thomas said were “biased and prejudicial” against the tribe.

“The position the chief justice has taken leaves a gaping hole in matters of law relating to the Narragansett Indian Tribe or his ability to review any case law concerning the Narragansetts objectively and without prejudice,” Thomas wrote in a letter to U.S. Attorney Robert Corrente.

Williams’ remarks were published in an Oct. 9 Providence Journal report describing a squabble between Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri and the town of Charlestown over which lawyer should argue the state’s case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court against the Interior Department’s decision to take 31 acres of land into trust for the tribe.

Carcieri favors former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, a high-powered Washington lawyer who is best
known for arguing the U.S. Supreme Court case that secured the presidency for George W. Bush eight years ago.

The town favors Joseph S. Larisa Jr., its assistant solicitor on Indian affairs who has been involved in fighting the Narragansetts since the land-into-trust case began 10 years ago. The 31 acres of proposed trust land are located in the town, which is built on the tribe’s aboriginal territory and abuts its 1,800-acre settlement lands.

Meanwhile, tribal leaders from the Northeast and beyond are preparing to attend the high court hearing in solidarity with the Narragansetts, because the case is vitally important to all of Indian country and has the potential to impact any tribe that has been federally acknowledged since 1934.

The high court will hear arguments Nov. 3 on two questions: whether the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act empowers the Interior secretary to take land into trust for Indian tribes that were not recognized and under federal jurisdiction in 1934, and whether an act of Congress that extinguishes aboriginal title and all claims based on Indian rights and interests in land precludes the secretary from creating Indian country there.

Amidst the bickering between the governor and the town of Charlestown, Williams told the Rhode Island newspaper that he supports Larisa for the job.

“He’s one of our best appellate lawyers. Joe Larisa would be a superb advocate for not only the town’s position, but the state’s position.”

Thomas said that Williams’ positioning of the state and judiciary on one side and the tribe on the other was “clearly not neutral.”

“Why would the chief justice of the state Supreme Court voice such a biased and prejudicial statement when he is sworn to uphold justice for all citizens of the state of Rhode Island, which includes the federally recognized and acknowledged Narragansett Indian Tribe?” he wrote in his letter to the U.S. attorney. The letter was copied to the state’s congressional delegation, the Native American Caucus and the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Williams has presided over a number of cases that have been decided against the Narragansetts, including a decision last December that freed Carcieri from testifying at the trial of seven tribal members who were arrested in a notorious state police SWAT team and canine unit raid five years ago on the tribe’s tax-free smokeshop.

Carcieri had ordered the raid. A lower court judge ruled that the governor had to testify, but Williams overturned that decision on appeal from the governor.

“We can conceive of absolutely no situation in which the testimony that defendants seek to elicit from the governor would be relevant to the theory of the defense that the state police used excessive force,” Williams wrote in his ruling.

Like some of the Wabanaki Confederacy tribes of Maine who also have 1970s-era land claim settlements, the Narragansetts have had their tribal sovereignty and immunity eroded by a series of court decisions that favor state claims of power and jurisdiction over tribal nations.

Thomas said those decisions now need to be reviewed, “including past decisions of the state Supreme Court against the tribe of which Chief Justice Williams presided. We therefore request that you formally investigate the actions of the state of Rhode Island against the aboriginal and sovereign Narragansett Indian Tribe, and take appropriate legal or legislative steps to remove the great burden and prejudice that has been placed upon the Narragansett Indian Tribe.”

Without the intervention of the U.S. attorney and Congress, he said, “the aboriginal and sovereign Narragansett Indian Tribe will continue to be treated as third-class citizens and indentured servants of the colony and state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation.”