Billings Gazette: Tribes get White House pitch for Gorsuch

Western American Indian tribes got the hard sell from the White House on Wednesday to back Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.

Representatives from Montana’s Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes met as delegates of the National Congress of American Indians with Trump staff and Western lawmakers to discuss Gorsuch. The Supreme Court nominee’s Senate hearing is set to begin Monday.

Ryan Rusche and Rhonda Swaney were there for CSKT. Rusche didn’t return calls afterward, but CSKT spokesman Rob McDonald said the western Montana tribes decided in February to endorse Gorsuch.

“Judge Gorsuch’s record demonstrates respect for Tribal sovereignty and understanding of the unique issues facing Indian Country,” CSKT said in a statement announcing its endorsement.

Gorsuch picked up his understanding of tribal issues while serving as a federal appellate judge in the Colorado-headquartered 10th Judicial District. The nominee is being promoted as the Supreme Court’s first voice from the inland West since the resignation of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, an Arizona resident who retired in 2006.

The 10th Circuit stops south of the Montana-Wyoming border. Montana is in the Ninth District. In his application to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gorsuch included a ruling concerning the Northern Arapaho Tribe of Wyoming, in which the judge confirmed the religious rights of Andrew Yellowbear, a Northern Arapaho imprisoned for murdering his daughter.

Yellowbear was being denied use of a prison sweat lodge constructed for American Indian inmates wishing to practice their religion. The inmate was in special protective housing because of threats from other prisoners. The sweat lodge was in the prison yard used by the general population. Even a prisoner, stripped of most rights still has a right to worship, the judge ruled. Yellowbear argued that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act assured him access to the sweat lodge. That act, rooted in the First Amendment right to freedom of religion, needed to be upheld.

Gorsuch called the Yellowbear case one of his 10 most significant rulings. Decisions important to tribes cited Wednesday included a Gorsuch ruling favoring the members of the Uintah and Ouray reservations who were being prosecuted in Utah by non-tribal courts alleging crimes committed on reservation land.

National Congress of American Indian members were joined by Western state lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.

“I was really proud that we were at the White House and we had a Montana tribe there, who shared some comments about their support,” Daines said.

President Donald Trump did not attend the meeting. Some federal officials were unable to attend in person because of snow travel restrictions and had to teleconference into the Secretary of War Suite where the meeting was held.

Daines said a month ago that he planned to confirm Gorsuch, who needs 60 supporting votes in the U.S. Senate. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has committed to giving Gorsuch a fair hearing, but hasn’t said he will vote for the nominee.

There are Senate Democrats opposed to Gorsuch and angry because Appellate Judge Merrick Garland, nominated by former President Barack Obama, never received a confirmation hearing. Garland was nominated March 16, 2016 to replace Antonin Scalia who died a month earlier.

Though Obama had a right to nominate a replacement for Scalia, Republicans refused do so until Obama left office.