House passes VAWA 286-199

By Alysa Landry
Special to the Times

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 7, 2013

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T he U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 28 gave final approval to a landmark bill that offers unprecedented protection to American Indian and Alaska Native women who are victims of domestic violence or sexual assault on tribal land.

The bill, which reauthorizes the Violence Against Women Act for five years and includes provisions that grant tribes criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians in specific circumstances, now awaits President Barack Obama's signature.

"I commend the House of Representatives for taking a stand to protect all women from crimes of domestic violence," Navajo President Ben Shelly said in a prepared statement. "Women should not have to live in fear of violent acts of crime. This bill gives tribal nations the tools to protect Native women."

Despite House Republicans' last-minute efforts to strike from the bill tribal provisions and language protecting gay, lesbian and transgender people, the legislation passed with a vote of 286-199.

The House rejected its amended bill and instead passed the Senate version. The Senate approved its bill Feb. 12 by a vote of 78-22.

All House Democrats, including New Mexico Reps. Ben Ray Lujan and Michelle Grisham Lujan and Arizona Rep. Ann Kirkpartrick, voted in favor of the reauthorization. The Republican vote was split, with 87 representatives supporting the bill and 138 opposing it. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., voted in favor of the bill while Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, voted against.

The original Violence Against Women Act passed in 1994 and is credited with significantly reducing incidents of domestic violence in the United States. It created a National Domestic Violence Hotline and authorized federal funding for battered women's shelters.

The latest version of the act expired in 2011 and Congress last year failed to come to an agreement on a reauthorization bill.

The newly approved act includes groundbreaking protective measures for American Indian women. It gives tribal courts the authority for the first time to exercise jurisdiction over non-Indians when the defendant is an established intimate partner of a tribal member who commits an act of domestic violence or violates violence-related protection orders.

Previously, tribes had no criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians.

"This is very exciting," said Brian Quint, government and legislative affairs associate for the Navajo Nation Washington Office. "This is a very important bill because it recognizes the inherent authority of the Navajo Nation to exercise jurisdiction."

An estimated 75 percent of reported instances of abuse of Native women are committed by non-Indians, according to the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women.

One in three American Indian women will be raped in her lifetime and 39 percent will experience domestic violence. On some reservations, Native women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average, the task force reported.

One vocal advocate for the bill was Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who is one of two American Indian members of Congress. Cole, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, praised Congress for passing the bill.

"Tribal authorities will finally have the same ability to police and protect their land that all other jurisdictions already enjoy," he said in a prepared statement. "The absence of adequate judicial and legal authority given to tribes has made reservations places where domestic violence and sexual assaults are all too common."

Republicans in Congress tried to block the tribal provisions because of fears that non-Indian defendants could not get fair trials in tribal courts, thus violating their Constitutional rights.

The act, however, does not deny any Constitutional protections, Cole said. Provisions in the bill allow a defendant to opt for trial in federal court or call for jury selection from the surrounding community, including non-tribal members.

Cole called the tribal provisions "long overdue."

"The passage of the Violence Against Women Act gives tribes badly needed tools to combat the epidemic of violence and abuse in Indian Country," Cole said.

The reauthorization comes a week after a series of automatic federal budget cuts went into effect.

The sequester is expected to hit the Navajo Nation hard, with cuts of at least $23 million, much of which may come from the already overburdened law enforcement and judicial services.

The Violence Against Women Act may help the Nation regain some of those funds, Quint said.

"The bill authorizes more grant programs for tribes working to exercise this special jurisdiction," he said. "Our law enforcement program is underfunded to begin with and the sequester means another hit. The situation is critical."

The newly reauthorized law also calls for continued funding for shelters and for programs that prosecute those who commit acts of domestic violence and sexual assault. New additions include provisions that address stalking, spyware and video surveillance.

President Obama is expected to sign the VAWA on Thursday. He will be joined by Vice President Joe Biden, according to a press release from the White House, and both are expected to be joined by women's organizations, law enforcement officials, tribal leaders, survivors, advocates and members of Congress.

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