First Senate Bill Passed This Session Navigates Meskwaki Judicial Jurisdiction

Feb 1, 2016

In 1948, two small lines in a congressional bill meant quite a big deal for Iowa’s sole Native American tribe. In an unfunded mandate from the federal government, the Act of 1948 designated Iowa would take over judicial jurisdiction of the Meskwaki settlement from the federal government.

“It gave concurrent criminal jurisdiction to the state of Iowa over the residents of the settlement. It didn’t divest the tribe of its inherent sovereignty to pass its own laws, it just simply said, ‘Iowa, you can also prosecute criminal cases.’ So since 1948, there’s kind of been this triple prosecution potential,” says Jay Finch, attorney general of the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa.

That creates the possibility of a ‘double jeopardy’ scenario for Native Americans living in the settlement: not only can they be tried in their tribal court, they can be tried by the state of Iowa. And while, back in 1948, the tribe didn’t have a robust judicial system of their own, now they have one very similar to the state of Iowa’s—complete with law-trained judges, prosecutors, public defenders and 24-hour police protection—and they want control of their own judicial affairs.

“[The Act of 1948] places the Native American who commits an offense on their own land subject to the jurisdiction of another court. Consequently they would have to pay double fines, maybe do additional incarceration. … The tribe’s position is that it’s basically, fundamentally unfair,” says Finch.

So they approached the Justice Department of the federal government, who said the state of Iowa would have to sign off on relinquishing that power before they could do anything. The Iowa Senate and House passed a joint resolution saying as much in July of last year, but the Justice Department said an actual law would have to be passed before they could act. Enter Senator Sodders, a Democrat from Tama County, where the Meskwaki tribe is settled, and Chair of the Senate Judiciary committee. He introduced a bill that will give the tribe the sole right to prosecute misdemeanors committed by Native Americans on tribal land.

“This just sets afoot what the tribe has felt has been unfair, it sets it right for them, and it is a piece of their history,” says Sodders.

He says their jurisdiction will only cover low-level crimes; felonies, or crimes committed by non-Native Americans, will still be handled by Iowa's or the federal court system. The bill passed the Senate 41-6 in the second week of the session. One of the six opposed was Senator Julian Garrett, a Republican from Warren County. He says the bill will create needless complication.

“Right now we have kind of a dual system for these low-level crimes, now we will have a three-tiered system, and … the crime and the punishment is going to depend on your ethnicity. I don’t know of any other area in the law where we do that. Most people ordinarily would say, whether you’re committing a crime and what the punishment should be, shouldn’t depend on your ethnicity. It ought to be the same for everybody.”

In this Legislative Day edition of River to River, hosts Ben Kieffer and Joyce Russell speak with Sodders, Finch, and Garrett about the bill. Later in the program, they speak with Senator Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat from Ames, about a bill that would raise the minimum age to buy tobacco to 21; Representative Timi Brown-Powers, a Democrat from Waterloo, about a bill that would restrict teens from using tanning beds; and Representative Quentin Stanerson, a Republican from Center Point, about a bill that would allow for touch screens on self-service lottery kiosks.