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Compromise bill on tribal courts wins committee support

Clarissa Sabattis, Chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseets, foreground, and other leaders of Maine's tribes are welcomed by lawmakers into the House Chamber, Wednesday, March 16, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Rena Newell, Chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, Edward Peter Paul, Chief of the Aroostook Band of Mi'kmaqs, Kirk Francis, Chief of the Penobscot Nation, and William Nicholas, Chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Motahkomikuk, follow behind.
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
Clarissa Sabattis, Chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseets, foreground, and other leaders of Maine's tribes are welcomed by lawmakers into the House Chamber, Wednesday, March 16, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Rena Newell, Chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, Edward Peter Paul, Chief of the Aroostook Band of Mi'kmaqs, Kirk Francis, Chief of the Penobscot Nation, and William Nicholas, Chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Motahkomikuk, follow behind.

A legislative committee voted along party lines Tuesday to endorse a compromise that would give Wabanaki tribal courts more jurisdiction over criminal cases.

The bill represents the latest attempt to find common ground on complex tribal sovereignty issues between leaders of the Wabanaki Nation, the administration of Gov. Janet Mills, the attorney general's office and Democratic leaders in the Legislature. House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross told members of the Judiciary Committee just last month that the parties were focusing on three areas of potential compromise. But by Tuesday, Talbot Ross outlined an even narrower proposal focused largely on criminal justice issues.

The latest version of the bill, LD 2007, would recognize the exclusive jurisdiction of Wabanaki courts for misdemeanor and some felony crimes that happen on tribal lands and that only involve members of the tribal community. Tribal and state courts would have concurrent jurisdiction over crimes within those classifications that occur on tribal lands but involve nontribal members.

The measure would also allow the Penobscot Nation to regulate drinking water on Penobscot tribal lands.

Talbot Ross acknowledged that the compromise is dramatically scaled down from the much broader tribal sovereignty bill that she had introduced to implement recommendations of a special commission. But she said many hours have gone into reaching the agreement based on what she described as a good-faith effort by all parties.

"I hope that you can appreciate that work and also know that is not the end of the conversation, that we will continue to discuss these pieces and really get to the place where the restoration of sovereignty is a reality in the state of Maine," Talbot Ross said. "But please know that this is not easy but people put a lot of work into reaching this agreement."

Mills vetoed a broader sovereignty billlast year despite strong support in her own Democratic caucus. Instead, Mills pledged to continue working with tribal representatives to address specific issues in a piecemeal fashion. Those discussions have continued in fits and starts, although tribal leaders say they believe time and public support are on their side as they work toward greater self-governance.

That bill, LD 2004, aimed to overhaul a landmark, 1980 legal settlement that governs state and tribal relations in Maine. But leaders of the four Wabanaki tribes in Maine — the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation, the Mi'kmaq Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians — contend the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act has prevented their communities from benefiting from many laws that apply to the more than 500 other federally recognized tribes around the country.

Last month, several Wabanaki leaders said they supported the talks to reach a more limited compromise this year rather than face another veto from Mills. And tribal leaders endorsed the product of those talks on Tuesday.

"We definitely, I think, have a lot more work to do but I appreciate where we have been able to come this far," said Chief Clarissa Sabattis with the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians.

"We are also very pleased with the process and how we got here," added Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis. "We have appreciated the engagement of the attorney general's office, the bill sponsor, this committee, the governor's office and others to try to come to a solution on a very specific issue of criminal jurisdiction."

The committee vote was 8-4, with all Democrats voting to support the measure. Several Republicans suggested that they could support the compromise, but they objected on process grounds because the 16-page amendment was only presented to the committee on Tuesday.

"This is a big deal. To transfer criminal jurisdiction from the state to the tribes is something that I think should be carefully considered," said Rep. Rachel Henderson, R-Rumford. "I'm sure the stakeholders have done a lot consideration and I'm sure they understand the framework. But I've had this for three days — less than 80 hours that I have this in my possession."

The bill now goes to the full House and Senate for consideration.

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