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VAWA Passes House Sans Tribal Court Provisions

Violence Against Women Act passes House of Representatives without Native American tribal provisions.

WASHINGTON – A reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) passed the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives on May 16 sans tribal court protections for Native Americans that had previously made it through the U.S. Senate.

The bill, known as H.R. 4970, passed by a vote of 222 – 205 along mostly party lines.

The White House has vowed that President Barack Obama will veto the House bill if it is sent to his desk for signature. Before the vote, the Obama administration issued a policy statement that said the House legislation retreats from the “forward progress” of the Senate legislation, which passed along bipartisan lines.

“For instance, H.R. 4970 fails to provide for concurrent special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction by tribal authorities over non-Indians, and omits clarification of tribal courts' full civil jurisdiction regarding certain protection orders over non-Indians,” the policy statement states. “Given that three out of five Native American women experience domestic violence in their lifetime, these omissions in H.R. 4970 are unacceptable.”

Protections for immigrants and LGBT survivors were also excluded from the passed House bill.

The bill will be sent to conference with the Senate to determine if a compromise can be made that could be signed into law.

Many House Democrats rose during floor debate to defend the Native American protections offered in the Senate legislation, saying that the House should have included them.

“I believe this bill will not work,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, lamented in a floor speech, saying that the tribal provisions should have been allowed.

A substitute amendment from Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. that would have protected tribal sections of the Senate bill was denied consideration by House Judiciary Committee on May 8.

Several Republican legislators made floor arguments that the tribal provisions were unconstitutional. The U.S. Justice Department, however, has said that they are constitutional.

VAWA was initially passed by Congress in 1994 as a way to offer funding for the prevention of domestic abuse and the protection of victims. Its most recent reauthorization happened in 2005; it expired in 2011.

Previous versions of the law have not included Native protections through tribal courts—a major shortcoming, according to tribal advocates and the Obama administration who have noted continued alarming abuse statistics facing Native communities.

The House legislation does allow for a battered Native woman – or a tribe on her behalf – to file in U.S. District Court for a protection order against her alleged abuser, whether Indian or not, who committed the abuse on Indian land.

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Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, said during debate that he supports this House provision for Natives, but he said at the same time that he also supported the stronger Senate protections, which he believes to be constitutional. Cole is the only Native American currently serving in Congress.

Cole added that he believes tribal sovereignty could only be strengthened if the bill makes it to conference committee. If the bill failed to pass the House, he said that could not happen.

Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., also rose to say she played a role in getting the House tribal provisions inserted during committee.

Noem, who represents a district containing a large number of Native constituents, has been criticized for not backing tribal courts as the Senate bill does.

In the end, the House legislation eliminated Senate language that would provide major tribal court jurisdiction and protection order provisions for tribes in the lower 48 states meant to curb the violence epidemic that exists on many reservations. Alaska Native tribes were excluded from the Senate’s provisions.

Section 904 of the passed Senate bill recognizes tribal court jurisdiction over non-Indian domestic violence offenders. Section 905 allows for tribal protection orders involving “any person,” including non-Indian offenders. The bill also strengthens federal authority to address violent felonies on reservations.

In pressing for the updates, Native advocates and the Obama administration had cited federal statistics on domestic violence against Indian women that shows most perpetrators of domestic violence against Indian women are non-Indian.

House Republicans combatted that research, however, issuing an accompanying report to the bill that claimed the data is flawed. The report was based on a study of the unique tribal population of one state, South Dakota, where reservations are majority Indian and where the majority of Indians in the state live on reservations.

The final decision to pass a bill different from the Senate’s was widely decried by tribal supporters.

“Republicans should not be in the business of picking and choosing which women can be beaten and where it can take place. We should protect all women from violence,” Dan Kildee, a Democratic candidate in Michigan’s 5th congressional race, said in a statement earlier this month when the bill was voted out of committee with the tribal provisions stripped. “It’s outrageous that they’ve turned something as bipartisan and effective in terms of reducing violence against women as the VAWA into a political weapon in order to satisfy extremists in their own party.”

The House bill was sponsored by Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Florida. An Adams spokeswoman told Congressional Quarterly that the congresswoman and other House Republicans consider the tribal provisions and others in the Senate bill to be unnecessary. “The grants are available to all victims, and there is no evidence to conclude that victims are being turned away,” spokeswoman Lisa Boothe told CQ.

However, under the current VAWA law that lacks tribal protections, federal statistics indicate that Native women are battered, raped, and stalked at far greater rates than any other population of women in the United States. The data indicates that 34 percent of Native women will be raped in their lifetimes and 39 percent will be the victim of domestic violence.

The Senate version of VAWA, S. 1925, passed along bipartisan lines with a vote of 68-31 on April 26.

Some Republican senators, including Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, put up a major fight against the tribal sections, saying they weakened federal sovereignty. In the end, Hutchison’s version of the bill that removed the tribal provisions was rejected by the full Senate.