, Muskogee, OK

September 26, 2011

Federal judge: Cherokees in contempt of court

By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer

A federal judge on Monday held the Cherokee Nation in contempt of court for missing a court-ordered deadline.

The tribe was ordered to notify more than 1,200 freedmen of their right to vote in the principal chief election. The notification deadline was Wednesday.

The deadline was imposed by U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. after lawyers representing the tribe, freedmen and the federal government hammered out a last-minute deal allowing freedmen’s participation in the election.

The agreement temporarily restored citizenship rights of about 2,800 descendants of former slaves held by Cherokee citizens. It granted eligible freedmen voters until Oct. 8 to cast ballots for principal chief to allow time for notification and participation.

On Monday, Jon Velie told the judge the tribe not only missed Thursday’s deadline to notify registered freedmen voters, it also missed a Saturday deadline to send absentee ballots to about 350 freedmen voters who had requested them. Velie represents freedmen descendants in federal court.

Susan Plumb, Cherokee Nation Election Commission chairwoman, said a mechanical problem during printing delayed the mailing. Plumb said all of the letters were mailed by Thursday, a day late.

“After the order was issued on Wednesday afternoon to notify all such voters before the election, the commission did everything we could within our power to comply with the order, Plumb said. “Mr. Velie has never asked the election commission for any information on this subject, and so far we have experienced high voter turnout which is encouraging to the commission.”

It wasn’t clear Monday how Kennedy’s ruling might affect the tribe’s second election for tribal chief.

Plumb said commissioners believe it was the court’s intent to ensure every eligible freedmen voter was notified of their right to vote in the principal chief election.

“We have wholeheartedly cooperated to the best of our ability while making sure the complete independence of the commission was upheld,” Plumb said. “We have done everything within our power to make sure that the freedmen are aware that they are not provisional voters and that their votes will count and that every citizen knows their voice is important.”

The court order issued Aug. 20 is a temporary reprieve regarding the debate about whether freedmen should be given full membership rights in the one of the country's largest tribes. The lawsuit pending in Washington will continue in federal court.

Ralph F. Keen II, who represents the freedmen in a similar case before the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court, filed a supplemental motion Friday in Tahlequah, asking the court to reconsider its Aug. 22 order upholding the rights of the Cherokee Nation to determine citizenship qualifications.

Keen and Velie argue the freedmen’s citizenship rights as Cherokees are guaranteed by an 1866 federal treaty with the Cherokee Nation. An attorney for the United States, Amber Blaha, told Kennedy this past week the U.S. Interior Department believes freedmen have the right to full citizenship rights under the treaty and an election without their participation would be illegal.

Saturday’s election was ordered by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court after it invalidated the June results. After multiple counts of the ballots came up conflicting results, the court ruled the contest too close to call.

Former Principal Chief Chad Smith, who is seeking a fourth term, stepped down Aug. 14 after his term expired. Smith has campaigned actively for a decade to remove freedmen who can prove no Cherokee blood lineage from the tribal rolls.

Smith’s challenger, longtime Tribal Councilman Bill John Baker, also supported the freedmen’s removal but not as vocally. Baker is believed to have the support of many freedmen voters.

Baker and Smith issued statements this past week blaming each other for the election mess.