AUGUSTA — A legislative committee on Tuesday approved a pared-down tribal sovereignty bill that would expand the authority of tribal courts to prosecute certain crimes that occur on their lands.

The Judiciary Committee voted 8-4 in support of L.D. 2007, which adopts provisions of federal law related to the criminal jurisdiction of tribal courts. The bill, which now faces votes in the House and Senate, would allow tribal courts to prosecute Class C, D and E crimes committed on tribal land involving, in most cases, at least one member of a federally recognized tribe.

Maine Constitution-Tribes

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross in 2022 at the Maine State House in Augusta. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press, file

“I want to stress to the committee that a lot of work has gone in to bringing you a consensus amendment,” House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, the bill’s sponsor, told the committee before the vote. “There have been a lot of eyes on this and hours of negotiations.”

Talbot Ross originally proposed a broader tribal sovereignty bill that sought to address additional recommendations from a 2020 task force report that called for updating the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980. After meeting with the attorney general’s office, governor’s office and tribes over the past several months, the speaker presented an amendment to her original bill Tuesday focused on expanding tribes’ criminal jurisdiction.

The proposal is supported by the governor and attorney general’s office. Officials with two of Maine’s four federally recognized tribes also spoke in support of the amendment Tuesday.

“I would echo what Speaker Talbot Ross said about the good process she led to get to this consensus amendment,” Jerry Reid, legal counsel for Gov. Janet Mills, told the committee. “I think this is an example of how we can focus on a specific problem and develop clear language that’s well-understood by all affected parties to solve real world problems and make progress.”


Allison Binney, an attorney for the Penobscot Nation, said the tribe thinks the bill is a good one. “The nation is very appreciative for the amount of conversations and dialogue that has occurred on the criminal jurisdiction restoration issues, from both the attorney general’s office and the speaker’s office, and also from the governor’s office,” Binney said.

The bill would align Maine law with provisions of federal Indian law related to the criminal jurisdiction of tribal courts and clarifies where the state has concurrent or exclusive jurisdiction. Currently, only two of the four tribes in Maine have their own tribal courts – the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy – though the law would also apply to not-yet-established courts of the Mi’kmaq and Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians.

The courts would have exclusive jurisdiction over certain Class C and lower crimes committed on tribal land that don’t involve a victim, such as criminal speeding, as well as Class C and lower crimes committed by a tribal member against another tribal member on tribal land.

The tribes would share jurisdiction with the state for certain Class C, D or E crimes involving both a tribal member and non-tribal member on tribal land, while the state would maintain exclusive authority over Class A and B crimes, crimes committed on tribal land against the state or any of its offices or departments, and certain other exceptions.

The bill also would allow provisions of a law passed last year that were not certified by the Penobscot Nation to come into effect. Those recognize the Penobscot authority to enact drinking water ordinances, exercise jurisdiction over certain crimes and ordinances, and recognize the authority of Penobscot law enforcement.

Janet Stocco, a legislative analyst for the committee, said the shared jurisdiction between the state and tribal courts would work similar to how state and federal courts coordinate to determine where a case might appear.


“It’s my understanding … that in many states there’s coordination that happens between law enforcement agencies, prosecutorial agencies, and they figure out how to proceed much like where there is concurrent jurisdiction over certain types of conduct at the state and federal level,” Stocco said.

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, asked why the bill is limited to Class C and lower crimes. Eric Menhert, chief justice of the Penobscot Nation Tribal Court, told the committee that federal law limits the jurisdiction of tribes based on sentencing provisions.

Tuesday’s vote was along party lines, with Democrats present voting in support of the bill and Republicans opposed. Three of the four Republicans expressed concerns about the process by which the bill came about and said they didn’t have enough time to consider Talbot Ross’ original proposal or the amendment that was workshopped Tuesday.

“I’m very open-minded and I’d like to get to a yes on this, but I feel like I don’t know what the pitfalls and land mines are here because we haven’t had a hearing on this particular proposal,” Brakey said.

Brakey and Rep. Rachel Henderson, R-Rumford, said they would support the bill if it were amended to provide additional time for tribes to certify the agreement and if the new criminal jurisdiction applied to crimes involving tribal members only.

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