Letter: Murkowski’s legal judgment correct on tribal court authority

Shannyn Moore complains (Comment, March 10) that Sen. Murkowski deliberately excluded Alaska Native tribes from new tribal court criminal and civil authority in the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA). There’s a legal reason for this.

Federal courts must resolve a constitutional issue with VAWA: May Congress grant tribal courts jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit crimes on Indian reservations? Tribal courts afford no federal constitutional rights; can the law force non-Indians to forgo these rights?

In Alaska, even this threshold question cannot arise. Except for Metlakatla Reservation, Native tribal courts have no fixed land “territory” over which they exercise criminal or civil jurisdiction, because there exist no tribal land “reservations” held in federal trust.

ANCSA conveyed land to private Native regional and village corporations but created no tribal reservations. ANCSA lands do not define any territorial jurisdiction of Native tribal courts, which consequently have limited civil jurisdiction over only their own members. Certainly, Native tribal courts have no criminal jurisdiction over non-members for crimes occurring within any defined tribal “territory,” of which there is none. Sen. Murkowski’s legal judgment is correct.

— T. E. Meacham