- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2008

The issue of sovereignty and American Indians is ever-changing, and experts on the issue fear it’s become too susceptible to changes in political administrations.

To address these and other issues, the nonprofit Foundation for California held a one-day conference last week to discuss American Indians’ history, their relations with the federal government and current sovereignty status in American jurisprudence.

Legal scholars, judges and political scientists attending the conference exchanged ideas on establishing a more coherent policy.

Alfred Balitzer, founder and chairman of the foundation, said the conference was not aimed at a specific legislative or judicial body. But he said: “The timing is good, especially [since] we see a number of cases are coming up now to the Supreme Court on sovereignty.”

For example, the Indian tribe San Manuel and National Labor Relations Board are involved in a lawsuit over union organizing at tribal casinos.

In that case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld a NLRB ruling that federal labor law could apply to tribe-owned businesses.

The judge ruled that “the tribal sovereignty is not absolute autonomy.”

But Ralph Rossum, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, argued that the Constitution protects tribal sovereignty. He said in the Sacramento Bee that the Supreme Court should intervene and “repudiate [lower courts’] departures from clear and controlling precedents, and perform its historic role of protecting tribal interests and sovereignty.”

Although saying the sovereignty issue is not “predictively political,” Loren Smith, co-chairman of the conference and former judge of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, said it is hard to reach a bipartisan solution.

He said the issue is volatile even within the American-Indian groups.

“On the one hand, they obviously want to have a better life, they want to have prosperous economy, health care,” he said. “On the other hand, they also want to retain their distinctive culture and institutions.

“As a judge, I am neither pro or anti,” Mr. Smith said. “I am trying to look at what the constitution of law says, and obviously at the moment, there would be tweak.”

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