Hembree concerned with potential tribal sovereignty threats
BY WILL CHAVEZ Senior Reporter TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree told Tribal Councilors at the Feb. 27 Rules Committee meeting that two issues within the state could pose threats to tribal sovereignty. Hembree said he and members of his staff on Feb. 26 joined Chickasaw Nation and Choctaw Nation representatives to meet with Steve Mullins, general counsel for Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, to discuss “two major topics.” One topic is a proposed rule change by the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission to require a limited waiver of sovereign immunity to any tribal casino that applies for a liquor license with the state, which the tribes oppose. “There are many legal reasons that this cannot take place. This is an issue that Gov. Fallin is promoting. It was a very impressive sight to see the Cherokees, Choctaws and Chickasaws all at one table with a united voice on this matter,” Hembree said. “I do believe we got the governor’s attention in this matter, and whether it is through policy negotiation or through legal challenge, I don’t not believe the ABLE Commission will be able to go forward with this rule. We will engage them.” The item was not listed on the ABLE Commission’s March 10 meeting agenda, according to the commission’s website. Commissioners tabled the item at its February meeting. The other issue deals with Shawnee city officials giving notice to the Citizen Pottawatomie Tribe in central Oklahoma that they intend to begin collecting sales tax from Citizen Pottawatomie Tribe-owned businesses located within the city limits. Hembree said he believes issues similar to this issue have already been litigated in the state court and the U.S. Supreme Court. The Governor’s Office and the state Attorney General’s Office “are contemplating weighing in” one the side of the city, he added. “Obviously this is an issue that is of great importance for all Indian tribes in Oklahoma. The Choctaws, Chickasaws and Cherokees expressed our thoughts on this matter, and we stand ready to engage the city of Shawnee or the state of Oklahoma,” Hembree said. The two issues, however, could be decided by current litigation in the U. S. Supreme Court involving a Michigan tribe, he said. This past fall, the CN joined 11 tribes in support of the Bay Mills Indian Community and its lawsuit against Michigan. The state is at odds with the BMIC because it believes it can close the tribe’s casino because it is not on the tribe’s lands. A federal judge agreed with the state and issued an injunction in 2011 ordering the casino closed. However, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the judge’s injunction in late 2013. “That (Supreme Court) decision could come in early April. My office is working on contingency plans depending on the severity (of the ruling). I think there will be some restriction of some sort,” Hembree said. “Depending on the tenor and wording of the United States Supreme Court decision, this tribe needs to be ready to act and act quickly to protect our sovereign immunity and our business rights.” Hembree said after the Feb. 26 meeting between the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations and Oklahoma, he had a second meeting with state officials to discuss a hunting and fishing agreement. “We have set up a series of meetings to exchange information and data to get that ball rolling,” he said. Hembree also gave updates on litigation with the Department of Interior regarding the United Keetoowah Band’s 2.03 acres on which its casino sits, as well as 76 acres, also in Tahlequah, the UKB wants in trust status. He said the land lawsuits are separate and will not be joined together. The court case for the 2.03-acre tract will be heard on May 9 in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Oklahoma in Tulsa. Hembee said there has not been a briefing set for the 76-acre tract. On Feb. 28, the CN filed an objection into the UKB’s intervention in the case for the 76-acre tract. Also, Hembree said the CN has managed to get a restraining order against putting that land in trust until the lawsuit is decided. On Jan. 6, the Interior Board of Indian Appeals dismissed the CN’s appeal of a 2011 decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to allow the UKB to place the 76-acre parcel of land in trust. CN officials have said the UKB has no legal ground for trust land within the Nation’s 14-county jurisdiction. On Jan. 13 the CN filed a complaint with the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Oklahoma against Interior officials. In the complaint, the CN states the DOI’s dismissal of its appeal makes the 2011 decision by the DOI “final” and permits Secretary Sally Jewell to take the 76 acres into trust for the UKB. For the Freedmen case in federal court, Hembree said oral arguments are to be heard on April 28 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.