Amendment lets Alaska tribes keep restraining-order powers

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate passed the Violence Against Women reauthorization act Thursday with a last-minute amendment that lets Alaska tribes continue to issue domestic violence protective orders but excludes them from powers given to Lower 48 tribes to criminally prosecute offenders.

The act had been written to take away the existing power of Alaska tribal courts and councils to slap restraining orders on people who commit domestic violence, demanding that perpetrators stay away from victims or, in extreme cases, get banished from villages. But Alaska Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski got an amendment in the bill as it passed the Senate on Thursday that allows tribes and councils to keep that power.

Alaska tribal courts, though, are still denied new powers the bill gives Lower 48 tribal courts. The bill allows Lower 48 tribes for the first time to criminally prosecute non-Indians who attack tribal members on a reservation. But Alaska tribes are forbidden to do so.

Congress was reluctant to wade into the complex issue of tribal jurisdiction in Alaska, where there are no federally designated reservations except for Metlakatla. Gov. Sean Parnell also opposed such an expansion of tribal court criminal jurisdiction in Alaska, saying more law enforcement in the villages is a better solution.

Ed Thomas, president of the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska, said in a Thursday interview that he's disappointed.

"In our villages there is no other source of justice," Thomas said. "It really makes sense for the court run by the tribe to be authorized to deal with these problems."

But Thomas said he was glad that Alaska tribes can continue to issue civil domestic violence protective orders.

Both Murkowski and Begich voted for the overall reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which was the subject of weeks of partisan battling. Some Republicans objected to the tribal powers and language adding gays and lesbians to the groups protected from discrimination in services under the law.

There was little disagreement over the need to renew the basic law, though, and the measure passed on a 68-to-31 vote.

It now goes to the U.S. House, which has its own version.

The bill provides funding to law enforcement, victims advocates and states to help reduce domestic violence and increase its reporting. It would renew the act for five years and would authorize spending of $659.3 million annually, down $136.5 million a year.

Murkowski said that "it represents a real improvement in services offered to victims even in a difficult budget environment."

She said 300 Alaskans were turned down for free legal assistance with domestic violence issues in 2010. The bill sets up a program so that won't happen again, she said.

Begich said in a speech that "it's not every day we get to vote on a bill that saves lives but this one actually does."

Reach Sean Cockerham at or (202) 383-6016.

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