Why Doesn't Heidi Heitkamp Support Fair Trials For The Accused?


Senator Heidi Heitkamp is on a statewide tour touting the Senate’s passage of the Violence Against Women Act. The intent of Heitkamp’s tour is blatantly political – Rep. Kevin Cramer will be up for re-election at the top of the statewide ballot next year, and Heitkamp clearly intends to use the VAWA as a wedge issue against Cramer.

But the bill has problems in the Republican-controlled House, as the Fargo Forum reports:

As passed by the Senate, the bill included new protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender victims and a provision that would allow non-Native Americans accused of assaulting Indian women on reservations to be tried in tribal courts. …

Heitkamp said one of the issues between the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-led Senate last year was a plan to protect undocumented immigrant victims. That provision was taken out of the new Senate bill to be included in an immigration reform bill, she said, but the other new elements may lead to “some amount of consternation” in the House.

There’s no doubt that House Republicans are going to have a problem with the VAWA, and there’s no doubt that political opportunists like Heitkamp will claim a “war on women.”

But let’s be clear, Heitkamp is doubling-down on provisions in this law which undermine the rights of those accused of crimes on reservations to a fair trial. “I will not support a Violence Against Women Act that does not have a provision for Native American women for protection on the reservations,” she said.

Yet the problem with giving tribal courts jurisdiction over non-tribal members in these cases is that it’s doubtful non-tribal members can get a fair trial in tribal courts. It may be an inconvenient truth, but tribal courts are notoriously corrupt. Many tribal judges have minimal, if any, legal training. And juries pulled from pools that are almost exclusively tribal members don’t meet legal requirements for impartial juries.

Heitkamp, who was once North Dakota’s Attorney General, has to know the position she’s putting non-tribal citizens accused of crimes in. But she doesn’t care. Because the politics of this situation are just too convenient for her.

Which doesn’t speak highly for Heitkamp’s character.

The provision for tribal jurisdiction over non-tribal members is an egregious assault on the rights of the accused, and House Republicans will be right to reject it on those grounds, but that won’t stop Heitkamp from singing the “war on women” song anyway.

It’s called the criminal justice system, and while we need to make sure that we do get justice for the victims of crime, we need to ensure that the process is fair to those who are accused of crimes. The VAWA doesn’t do that.