Days after Nooksack Judge Susan Alexander ruled against the tribal council, she was fired.
The Nooksack tribe is seeking a new judge — one purportedly “responsible for fairly and impartially hearing and deciding judicial matters,” according to an advertisement posted on the tribe’s website and elsewhere.
Anybody applying for the job, however, might want to inquire about what happened to the last judge. Susan Alexander was fired after issuing a ruling the tribal council didn’t like.
The judge, who has worked in tribal legal systems for 20 years and taught law at the University of Washington and New York University, ruled this past month that the tribal council had not afforded Seattle lawyer Gabriel Galanda and his legal partners due process when it disbarred them from tribal court.
The disbarment prevented Galanda from representing members of a sprawling clan targeted for disenrollment by the council. The long-running saga had turned the Native-American lawyer into an aggressive champion not only of the 306 people facing disenrollment by the Nooksacks but of people throughout the country who have been kicked out by their tribes.
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In her March 21 ruling, Alexander called the Nooksack council “plainly biased” and given to “extreme tactics” in its pursuit of disenrollment.
The next day, a tribal staffer called the 69-year-old judge and directed her to take a “random” drug test, according to an account of events written by Alexander and published by The Bellingham Herald.
But the test wasn’t random at all, tribal council member and general manager Katherine Canete indicated. She said it was “absolutely” prompted by Alexander’s ruling because “it was just so out of character.”
“It blatantly waived our sovereign immunity,” Canete elaborated, referring to the legal principle that protects governments from lawsuits. What’s more, she said, the judge did so without a hearing.
Yet, the order made no mention of such a waiver. Seattle University’s Distinguished Indian Law Practitioner in Residence Eric Eberhard said he had read the ruling and did not see how it could be seen to violate sovereign immunity. “I thought she was doing her job, and doing it in a very thorough and thoughtful way,” he added.
When asked to explain why she thought otherwise, Canete said: “I’m trying to think of the best way to put it into words. I’d have to think about that.”
She didn’t come up with an explanation, but cited sovereign immunity again as the reason why, on March 28 after the drug test came back clean, she fired Alexander.
Alexander, in her written account, said that if the tribal council believed she had exceeded her authority, it ought to have appealed her ruling. She also said that the tribe, which submitted hundreds of pages of documents before the ruling, never asked for a hearing.
Speaking last week to The Seattle Times, Alexander said she was reluctant to criticize the tribe. “I am not Native myself,” she noted. “I’m honored whenever an Indian tribe appoints me to serve as a judge.”
She has served on the bench for a half-dozen tribes, including the Makah and Nisqually, and as an attorney for others. Having grown up near the Colville reservation and moved away while building her career, she returned to Washington in the ‘90s and married the owner of motel located near the Makah reservation. He told her that the Makahs were looking for a prosecutor. She applied and got the job.
“I just got hooked,” she said, calling the issues that come up in Indian country “fascinating.”
The Nooksacks, granted federal recognition in 1973, have a young government, she said. “They’re finding their way.”
Still, she hinted, “I just think there are some tragedies there,” saying there are questions about whether the legal system is operating the way it should.
This past Tuesday, a panel of appeals judges — convened by the Northwest Intertribal Court System, which provides judges and other legal services to tribes upon request — also pointed to problems. The Nooksack court clerk had improperly refused to accept complaints from Galanda and his law partners related to their disbarment.
When the lawyers asked the appeals court to intervene, the tribe opted out of the process and failed to file a response.
The appeals judges ordered the tribe to file a response or accept the complaints.
Canete said she hadn’t been briefed on the order and couldn’t comment.
The tribe doesn’t have the authority to fire these judges, but it could terminate its contract with the Intertribal Court System.
Where that would leave the Nooksack legal system — or the 306 facing disenrollment — is open to question. But the “melodrama,” as Galanda calls it, has after more than three years attracted the attention Rep. Suzan DelBene.
“You may be interested to know that I have been in touch with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to better understand this issue,” the congresswoman wrote to a concerned constituent earlier this month. “I am closely monitoring the situation.”