Finally, reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which passed the Senate two weeks ago with a bipartisan majority, passed the House today, 286 to 138. The law, first championed by then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) in 1994, expands protections for immigrants, lesbian couples and Native American women. President Obama said today that he would sign it “as soon as it hits my desk.”
Before the end of the last Congress, negotiations stalled over the Native American provision. That is, giving tribal courts limited authority to prosecute non-Native Americans accused of domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes against Native American women on Indian reservations. As I wrote last December, under the old VAWA, a non-Native American man who beats up, sexually assaults or even kills a Native American woman on tribal land would basically get away with it because tribal courts do not have jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indian defendants. In addition, federal and state law enforcement have limited resources to pursue cases and might be hours away from a reservation.
According to a powerful op-ed by Louise Erdrich for the New York Times this week, “Tribal courts had such jurisdiction until 1978, when the Supreme Court ruled that they did not have inherent jurisdiction to try non-Indians without specific authorization from Congress.” The result has been, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report on “Department of Justice Declinations of Indian Country Criminal Matters,” that 67 percent of those criminal matters declined by DOJ were sexual abuse and related cases.
With a new VAWA about to become law, an outrageous quirk in our legal system will be fixed. No longer will non-Native American men be able to assault or murder Native American woman without the fear of prosecution. The law that perverted justice in favor of rapists and murderers is now back in balance.
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