Tribal Council OKs judicial expansion act, historic budget
Shawna Baker, of Tulsa, is sworn-in as a new Supreme Court Justice on Aug. 27 at the Tribal Complex in Tahlequah. Nominated by Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., Baker was confirmed by the Tribal Council earlier in the evening. COURTESY
TAHLEQUAH – During its Aug. 27 meeting, the Tribal Council passed legislation to deal with the changes created by the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt v. Oklahoma decision in July, approved the largest budget in its history and confirmed a new justice to the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court.
The unanimously-approved the Cherokee Nation Reservation, Judicial Expansion and Sovereignty Protection Act that expands the tribe’s judiciary, prosecution staff and Marshal Service to deal with ramifications of the McGirt ruling, which favored a Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen’s argument that state courts had no authority to try him for a crime committed on reservation land. The decision’s potential impact on territorial rights and criminal jurisdiction prompted the CN to frame the act for “immediate action and long-term planning.”
Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the act makes clear “that the Cherokee Nation is committed to affirming our sovereignty while taking the necessary steps to expand our capacity and resources in the wake of the McGirt decision.”
“Alongside the recently established sovereignty commission,” he added, “today’s action will enable us to ensure our law enforcement and public safety systems can continue to function effectively as we respond to this historic Supreme Court victory for Indian Country.”
At an earlier Rules Committee meeting, Attorney General Sara Hill deemed “appropriate” additional compensation for CN Supreme Court justices and District Court judges as part of the new act.
“One of the things we’re looking at is an increase in the number of cases across the board,” she said. “So that means there’s going to be more cases coming through the prosecutor’s office, more cases in front of the district court. More of those cases are going to go up to the Supreme Court than have ever gone through before. So we’re looking at this sort of massive court expansion.”
Legislators also approved a $1.52 billion fiscal year 2021 budget, which is the largest in tribal history thanks in part to federal COVID-19-related CARES Act funding.
“Of course, each and every one of us know that’s possible because of the efforts we all undertook to secure federal funds to keep from having to make some of the more difficult decisions that we may be faced with if we do not see the pandemic come to an end and see our businesses pick up,” Hoskin told the Council.
The budget addresses spending for health care, language, housing and other tribal services. Nearly 77% of the budget is federally funded, according to figures presented to the Tribal Council. The largest individual funding source, at 37%, comes from the Indian Health Service.
In a 13-4 vote, councilors supported Hoskin’s nomination of Tulsa attorney Shawna Baker as a justice of the Supreme Court until Dec. 31, 2024.
“It makes me very proud that we have such an exemplary Cherokee woman to confirm,” Tribal Councilor Victoria Vazquez said during the Rules Committee meeting. “Shawna Baker certainly is qualified.”
Baker is the third woman in the tribe’s history to serve on the Supreme Court.
Councilors who voted against Baker’s appointment were Wes Nofire, Harley Buzzard, Mary Baker Shaw and Julia Coates.
Unanimous votes also request the Interior Department to put into trust the Tahlequah city block east of the Cherokee National History Museum, on which the CN has built a pavilion. The Council also voted to request 127 acres of land into trust near Nicut in Sequoyah County.
Needed adjustments were also approved to the Indian Housing Plan, passed in its original form on June 25. Deadlines for submission were extended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gary Cooper, Housing Authority of the Cherokee Nation executive director, has said the CN anticipates federal block grants and other housing assistance to amount to $27.9 million in fiscal 2021.
Also approved was an amendment to the CN Cemeteries Preservation Act of 2017 to provide funding for the repair and restoration of unmarked and damaged historical Cherokee graves.
The program will be supported with unused cemetery funds, said the measure’s sponsor, Tribal Councilor Joe Deere.
“Basically we are going to work on the budget from the cemetery restoration going forward with doing some unmarked graves and also providing some way back to starting like 1839,” he said. “A lot of that, with our culture and history, needs to be preserved. We have found a source where we have money to do that.”