By Naomi Schaefer Riley
The war on women is back, or so Democrats and the media tell us: Those male chauvinist House Republicans are holding up passage of the new Violence Against Women Act, which the Senate OK’d yesterday, and which President Obama last night asked the House to pass, too. When did you stop beating your wives, guys?
Since these legislators aren’t (sigh) doing a very good job of explaining the problem, here it is: A provision in the bill would expand the powers of Indian tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians accused of sexual assaults on Indian lands.
This is a big deal, folks: It would ultimately hurt victims, defendants and the justice system as a whole.
Start with the victims. Rape and sexual abuse are clearly rampant on many Indian reservations. The Justice Department says that one in three Native American women will be raped in her lifetime. In a 2007 story on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas, doctors told NPR that they saw rape and sexual assault victims “several times a month,” but they are almost never called to testify in court.
Oh, and authorities rarely break out the rape kits when a women reports a rape.
Women aren’t the only victims of this broken system. The Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota has seen an “epidemic of child sex abuse,” The New York Times reports. Children are raped and sodomized by friends, relatives and tribal elders.
Yet, the Times tells us, “The crimes are rarely prosecuted, few arrests are made, and people say because of safety fears and law enforcement’s lack of interest, they no longer report even the most sadistic violence against children.”
One whistleblower in the federal Administration for Children and Families compared the situation at Spirit Lake to Penn State and the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals.
Which is the point: Just like the Catholic Church and the Penn State administration (or, for that matter the Satmar ultra Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn), Indian reservations are insular. They’re governed by old boys’ networks that can, if left unchecked, put the leaders’ interests ahead of the victims’ interests, even in cases of of sexual crime.
We can’t let the fox guard the henhouse.
Then there’s the problem of the tribal “justice” systems. Sorry: These courts just don’t offer the same kind of procedures and protections as the rest our judicial system. And as Christina Villegas of the Independent Women’s Forum notes, “The problem with the tribal courts is that they don’t necessarily adhere to the same constitutional standards as the other courts in this country.”
Her point is backed by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, not a group usually cheering GOP congressmen. In a letter warning the House against expanding tribal powers, the group notes that many tribes “do not make the code of laws publicly available” and “have no rules for discovery by the defendants of evidence against them.” Indeed, many tribes don’t even provide defendants with a lawyer to represent them at trial.
In all cases, but especially in rape cases, the collection and discovery of evidence is extremely important. As Villegas notes, without evidence and a clear judicial process, the cases just “descend into ‘he said, she said.’”
Rather than giving over more power to Indian tribes, we should be giving women on these reservations greater access to the courts (and police) that the rest of us get to use.
Oddly, it looks like it’s the “informality” of tribal courts that appeals to the advocates behind this bad idea.
Consider: On college campuses, the “women’s rights” crowd’s answer to sexual assault has been to demand that schools set up special tribunals made up of faculty who don’t know the first thing about evidence or protecting the rights of victims or defendants to decide guilt or innocence.
Instead of calling the real police, these victims have been taught to take their cases to campus counselors — who have an incentive to protect their employer’s reputation rather than call in real law enforcement.
Just last year, a student at Amherst reported that when she told such a counselor she was raped, she was discouraged from pressing charges: “‘There’s not much we can do. It would be you, a faculty advisor of your choice, him, a faculty advisor of his choice in a room where you would be trying to prove that he raped you.’”
Yes, these tribunals seem to give victims the upper hand by dispensing with all those silly procedural matters. But these are important — not just in ensuring that the accused are protected, but also in making sure that criminals are punished to the fullest extent of the law and victims can see justice done.
If there’s a war on women here, the Republicans are fighting on the right side.