This year, three Native American tribes will have the power to prosecute non-natives for a limited set of crimes. Soon Judge Melvin R. Stoof, who graduated from the UNM School of Law in 1984, will be the first tribal judge in the country to hear a tribal criminal case against a non-Indian in 36 years. Stoof is an associate judge on the Pascua Yaqui Trial Court, located near Tucson, Arizona.
In the 1978 Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe case, the Supreme Court decided that Indian tribal courts do not have inherent criminal jurisdiction to try and to punish non-Indians. In the decision, the Supreme Court noted, "we are not unaware of the prevalence of non-Indian crime on today's reservations which the tribes forcefully argue requires the ability to try non-Indians."
For decades, domestic violence crimes were committed by non-Indians against Native women on tribal lands and perpetrators were rarely brought to justice. According to recent data collected by the Justice Department, the U.S. Census Bureau and advocacy organizations, Native American women suffer from domestic violence at rates more than double national averages. Most sexual assaults on tribal lands are never reported and of those reported, 75% are not prosecuted.
In 2013, the Violence Against Women Act was expanded, giving tribes the authority to prosecute non-Indians crimes for a limited set of crimes. The changes to tribal jurisdiction resulted from the high rate of domestic violence on reservations and in order to give tribes more authority over crime, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The opportunity to bring justice to victims of domestic violence crimes committed by non-Indians is an exciting one for Stoof and the Pascua Yaqui court staff. "Although I cannot comment on pending cases, I know that the alleged perpetrators have protections through their licensed attorneys at the public defender's office, and the prosecutors are also law trained and state licensed," says Stoof.
Stoof hopes that this experience will assist him in fairly deciding domestic violence cases. "I am also hopeful that the new federal law will increase funding to promote more training on domestic violence, especially for tribal court judges, who often do not have the same training resources or funds to access such training as their better financed state counterparts," says Stoof.
For the past twenty years, he has personally been involved in the enhancement of law training for tribal court judge’s skills, particularly in the area of domestic violence. "I served three terms as a Commissioner with the American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic Violence, and I recently completed a two year term on Eric Holder's National Advisory Committee on Violence Against Women," he says.
Stoof was interviewed by Washington Post writer Sari Horwitz for an article titled, "A change in justice on Indian reservations." The article has received comments hundreds of likes, comments, and shares on the Washington Post Facebook page and attention from other media outlets.