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VAWA Reauthorization Efforts Continue, Including Focus on Expanding Jurisdiction for Alaska Native and Other Tribes

In March, the House of Representative introduced and passed legislation to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which expired in 2019.  The reauthorization legislation, H.R. 1620, was received in the Senate on March 18, 2021, and negotiations to reach bipartisan agreement are underway.  Because the Senate is evenly divided at 50-50, Democrats must find 10 Republican votes to avoid a filibuster.  Primary sticking points in 2019 included provisions adding firearm restrictions for convicted domestic abusers and new protections for LGBTQ victims of violence, and those provisions are once again included in H.R. 1620.  Also included are provisions intended to expand the special domestic violence jurisdiction for all tribal governments, including Alaska Native Tribes.  If negotiations are successful, VAWA will include language intended to address the Act’s disparate treatment of Alaska Native Women and Tribes. 

As noted in our Spring 2021 Native Affairs Quarterly, H.R. 1620 includes an expansion of VAWA’s special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction (SDVCJ) for all Tribal governments, including Alaska Native Tribes.  That special jurisdiction affirms the inherent authority of Tribes to exercise domestic violence jurisdiction over certain defendants, regardless of their Indian or non-Indian status.  Under the current version of VAWA, SDVCJ jurisdiction is expressly tied to Indian country, which generally does not include Alaska Native villages or Native-owned lands in Alaska.  As a practical matter, that means most Alaska tribes are currently ineligible, even though Alaska Native Women are over-represented in the domestic violence victim population by 250 percent and, among Native American Tribes, suffer the highest rates of domestic and sexual violence in the country.     

Last year, Congressman Don Young (R-Alaska), who serves as the Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples, and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who serves as Vice Chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, each introduced legislation that would have created a pilot project allowing Tribes in Alaska to implement criminal jurisdiction under VAWA regardless of a defendant’s Indian status.  Congressman Young’s legislation would have redefined the term “Indian country” for purposes of the project, and Senator Murkowski’s legislation would have expanded the jurisdictional reach of Alaska Tribes participating in the pilot to the entirety of participating Alaska Native Villages. H.R. 1620 contains similar language, and Senator Murkowski and Congressman Young both remain committed to finding a solution.  

 FOOTNOTES

See “VAWA Reauthorization Brings Renewed Focus on Jurisdiction, Particularly for Alaska Native Tribes,” available at Native Affairs Quarterly - Spring 2021.pdf (vnf.com)

© 2022 Van Ness Feldman LLPNational Law Review, Volume XI, Number 218
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About this Author

Of Counsel

Charlene is a seasoned litigator with an extensive appellate practice representing public and private clients in federal, state, and administrative proceedings. She has experience with a wide variety of environmental, land use, and Indian country statutes, and has a special interest in the intersection of Native American law, environmental law, and public health.

Prior to joining Van Ness Feldman, Charlene served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Appellate Section of the Western District of Washington, where she represented the...

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