Maine House advances bill giving Wabanaki tribes more say over prosecution of crimes

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Apr. 2—AUGUSTA — The Maine House of Representatives advanced a bill Tuesday that would give the Wabanaki tribes more authority to prosecute certain crimes that occur on their lands.

The House voted 82-62 in support of L.D. 2007, which now advances to the Senate before final votes in each chamber of the Legislature.

The proposal has the support of Gov. Janet Mills. It was developed by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, the offices of the governor and attorney general, and the tribes as a compromise that came out of a broader tribal sovereignty bill from Talbot Ross.

"I look at this as a good faith effort that we will one day honor the ancient treaties and the promises that were made to allow the Wabanaki to live as sovereign and equal nations within the state of Maine," Passamaquoddy tribal Rep. Aaron Dana said.

The bill would align Maine law with provisions of federal law related to the authority of tribal courts and clarifies where the state has concurrent or exclusive authority over criminal prosecutions. Currently, only two of the four tribes in Maine have their own tribal courts — the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy — though the law would apply to not-yet-established courts of the Mi'kmaq and Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians.

Under the bill, the authority of the tribal courts would be expanded to give them exclusive authority over certain midlevel and lower-level crimes committed on tribal land that don't involve a victim, such as criminal speeding, as well as midlevel and lower-level crimes committed by a tribal member against another tribal member on tribal land.

The state would maintain the authority to handle the most serious cases but would share authority with the tribes over lower-level crimes involving both tribal and non-tribal members on tribal land.

Talbot Ross had originally introduced a broader bill that sought to implement several recommendations of a 2020 task force report that called for updating the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980.

But that proposal was opposed by Mills, who said it presented significant changes to state law, limited the authority cities and towns have to control tribal jurisdictions within their borders, and would have created legal confusion "by relying on vague terms and poorly understood concepts," including rights and responsibilities spelled out in 18th- and 19th-century treaties.

Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, where the bill was heard before being sent to the House, said the version approved Tuesday, while substantially narrower than the original, is "a remarkable product that came together on a pretty short timetable."

"On the original bill, there is a larger conversation to be had here," Moonen said. "We are constantly called on to reevaluate all of our laws every time we come into session, reevaluate our history and how we act and respond to past experiences and present needs. I view this amendment as one more step on that path. It's a path that's not over, but it's a really good step."

The bill did not draw significant debate Tuesday, with only Dana, Moonen and one other lawmaker speaking on the floor. Rep. Jennifer Poirier, R-Skowhegan, said she would not support the bill because she has heard from citizens of the tribes who have concerns about how the tribal courts are operating.

Some are not aware of what is going on at the State House and so have not spoken up on the bill, while others are fearful of speaking out because of how they could be perceived in their small communities, she said.

"I will not support expanding government authority when tribal citizens will not benefit," Poirier said.

At a work session on the bill last month, officials from two of the four tribes spoke in favor of it and none spoke against it.

"The nation is very appreciative for the amount of conversations and dialogue that has occurred on the criminal jurisdiction restoration issues, from both the attorney general's office and the speaker's office, and also from the governor's office," Penobscot Nation attorney Allison Binney said.