WASHINGTON -- Leaders of a prominent tribal organization are demanding that Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) retract comments this week that Native American courts are incapable of providing a fair trial to non-Native Americans.
Co-chairs of the Task Force on Violence Against Women for the National Congress of American Indians wrote in a letter to Grassley on Friday that they are "disappointed" in the senator's comments at a Wednesday town hall in Iowa. Grassley said at the meeting that he voted against the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization bill this month because of a provision to give tribal courts the ability to prosecute non-Native American men who abuse Native American women on reservations. He said his concern was that because reservations are made up of Native Americans, those jurists wouldn't be fair to non-Native Americans.
"If you have a jury, the jury is supposed to be a reflection of society," Grassley told his constituents. "Under the laws of our land, you've got to have a jury that is a reflection of society as a whole, and on an Indian reservation, it’s going to be made up of Indians, right? So the non-Indian doesn't get a fair trial."
Task force leaders said Grassley's remarks were offensive and factually wrong.
"We formally ask that you retract those statements as inaccurate and misleading," read the letter signed by task force's Juana Majel Dixon and Terri Henry.
They pointed to two problems with Grassley's comments. The Senate VAWA bill provides "clear language" that mandates that tribal juries provide fair and impartial hearings and that they represent cross-sections of the community, including non-Indians, the letter said. Secondly, the writers said, Grassley's remark "generally mischaracterizes" the ability of tribal courts to administer a fair system of justice.
"In other words, it presupposes that simply because there is a non-Indian in a tribal court, and an all-Indian jury or predominantly Indian jury, the court proceedings would inevitably result in an unfair trial," read the letter. "Or, more simply, Indian jurors would not be able to look objectively at the facts of the case, the testimony of the witnesses, and the brevity of the outcome on the defendant’s liberty, and make fair and impartial judgments on the matter."
The letter ends asking for Grassley's response to this "very sensitive issue."
Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine said the senator hasn't received the letter yet. When he does, "he will respond to them directly, and not through the press," Levine said.
Still, Levine sought to clarify Grassley's comments. She said the bottom line is that Grassley and "many others" have concerns about the constitutionality of the tribal provision.
"The Constitution requires that a trial by jury fairly represent a cross-section of the community and that no juror be denied the right to serve based on race. Membership in Indian tribes is racially defined by law and tribes are not required to allow non-members to serve on juries," Levine said in a statement. "Senator Grassley is concerned that allowing tribal court juries to try non-Indians in Indian tribal courts may violate the rights to a jury trial and to the equal protection of the law that the Constitution guarantees."