ANCHORAGE - U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, with a few sentences tucked into a spending bill, is moving to end federal funding for Alaska tribal courts and tribal police officers.
Instead, several million dollars in Department of Justice grants would be diverted to the state to pay for state court magistrates and Alaska's Village Public Safety Officer program.
Stevens, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, explained the shift as a matter of efficiency. There is not enough money for each of Alaska's 227 federally recognized tribes to have its own court system and police force, says a committee report explaining the provision in the spending bill the panel passed last week.
"Therefore, the committee has included a general provision in the bill clarifying that funds should not be made available to tribes in Alaska for courts or police until a more efficient delivery system can be developed, such as consolidation," the report said.
Tribal advocates say Stevens is trying to impose one of his long-held views - that the federal government should fund regional groups to provide service in rural Alaska rather than individual Alaska tribes.
"It's very much an attack on the tribal community. The tribal community is in shock," said Heather Kendall-Miller, an attorney in the Anchorage office of the Native American Rights Fund.
Stevens' move raises long-simmering questions about the role of tribal courts and police in Alaska.
Alaska tribes do not have the same "Indian Country" powers that Lower 48 tribes have to enforce laws within certain geographic areas. But Alaska tribal courts do have the power to decide custody and adoption cases, and they have asserted their jurisdiction on a range of other matters.
State Attorney General Gregg Renkes said Alaska tribal police should not have been receiving federal law enforcement grants at all.
"There's no such thing. There shouldn't be tribal law enforcement in Alaska. There's no jurisdiction," he said.
Kendall-Miller said many of the grants under the federal Community Oriented Policing Services do not require criminal jurisdiction.
"Issues related to domestic violence and public safety are often civil in nature," Kendall-Miller said. "This is not an issue of state jurisdiction versus tribal jurisdiction. It is an issue of maximizing scarce resources to provide a level of public safety in village Alaska."
Nobody knows how many tribes have courts, said Donna Goldsmith of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, which has sponsored training for tribal courts. "Not every community wants one or has one," she said.
The courts cover a broad spectrum, Goldsmith said. Some are formal and are similar to state courts; others are rooted in the traditional judicial systems that tribes have used for generations, such as sentencing circles. Judges might be a panel of elders, a single person selected by the tribe or the full tribal council, Goldsmith said. Tribal courts in Alaska generally deal with minor offenses and family issues.