WASHINGTON - Congress on Thursday gave Indian tribes new power to prosecute non-Indians in tribal courts for any crimes linked to domestic violence.
Ending a 16-month battle with the Senate, the House of Representatives voted 286-138 to approve the plan as part of an expansion of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. Republican opponents relented after failing to win enough votes to reauthorize the law without the provision.
The bill now goes to President Obama, who said he'd sign it.
"I'm ecstatic," said Deborah Parker, vice chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes in Washington state, who came to the Capitol last year to recount how she had been sexually and physically abused while growing up on the reservation.
Parker, 42, and other tribal officials lobbied hard for a new law in response to a 1978 Supreme Court ruling that tribes had no authority to try or punish non-Indians. The case involved a Washington state man whom the Suquamish Indian Tribe ordered to appear in tribal court after he was cited on charges of resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer.
"This is a long-delayed and hard-won victory for millions of women in this country," said Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, who made the issue a top priority after Congress allowed the law to expire in 2011.
The law, once signed, will allow tribes to try non-Indians only for rape and other crimes involving domestic abuse. While many opponents say the reauthorized law would be unconstitutional, backers say a narrow expansion probably would survive a court challenge.
Backers of the new law say it's needed because too many local authorities don't want to investigate crimes committed on reservations. And they say the situation has become severe: Indian women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average, and more than one in three will be raped in their lifetimes, according to the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women. That rape rate is twice as high as it is for other ethnicities.
Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington state said "there is no doubt" that the law would be struck down, and he accused Democrats of hijacking the law to advance other political agendas. He said he'd always voted to reauthorize the law before but that it had gotten caught up in a "political stampede" this time around.
"In a tribal court, constitutional protections and the Bill of Rights do not apply," Hastings said. "Under the bill, a non-Indian citizen tried in a tribal court has no right to appeal to a federal court, lacks the guarantee of due process, has no right to an impartial jury of one's peers and more. A vote in favor of the bill was a vote to deny U.S. citizens their Bill of Rights."