TRENTON, N.J. –– U.S. District Court Judge Renée Marie Bumb today denied New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino’s motion to dismiss a federal civil rights lawsuit against him brought by the 3,000 member Nanticoke Lenni- Lenape Tribal Nation (the “Tribe”).
In a carefully crafted 42-page written opinion, the Court found that the Tribe had presented viable claims that racial prejudice and political gamesmanship are motivating the Attorney General to violate the U.S. Constitution’s due process and equal protection guarantees in his treatment of New Jersey’s American Indians.Beginning in 1982 and for 34 years thereafter, New Jersey recognized three American Indian tribes within the state. As a consequence of that recognition, the tribes, among the state’s most vulnerable communities, had access to critical federal services including health care for poverty-level senior citizens, women, and children; college scholarships; jobs; and the right to sell traditional crafts labeled American Indian made. Governors of both political parties and numerous state agencies repeatedly reaffirmed the tribes’ recognized status to the public and federal agencies.
In 2012, however, on behalf of the Christie administration, the Attorney General took the position that New Jersey has no recognized American Indian tribes. This abrupt about-face has lead to devastating economic and social consequences for the tribes as access to federal programs has been withdrawn or threatened.
In its federal lawsuit, the Tribe alleged the Attorney General’s unilateral action is motivated by an irrational, racial stereotype-driven fear that all American Indians seek to conduct gaming. The Tribe’s charter and religious tenets expressly prohibit gaming, state recognition plays no role in securing federal gaming rights, and the Tribe has never sought such rights. Yet when the Tribe attempted to resolve the matter administratively with the Attorney General’s and Governor’s offices, the politics of gaming interests, Bridgegate, and Christie’s campaign for President, became roadblocks.
The Court today agreed that the Tribe has pled extensive facts that could lead the Court to conclude that the Attorney General was, indeed, unlawfully discriminating against the tribes and violating their Constitutional right to due process and equal protection of the laws.
Tribal Co-Chief Mark Gould said, “We are relieved, grateful, and prayerful about the Court’s carefully considered decision. We are indebted to the citizens of New Jersey for their support through this ordeal. We look forward to prevailing in the trial and beginning to rebuild our relationship with the government of New Jersey.”
The bombshell decision is a reversal of fortune for the Tribe, who saw their parallel suit in state court alleging violations of the New Jersey Constitution tossed in March by New Jersey Judge William Anklowitz. The tribe has appealed Judge Anklowitz’s decision. Today’s federal court decision, considering the same facts, reached a very different conclusion, providing the Tribe substantial ammunition in its state appeal.
“Judge Bumb’s decision today reminds us that in our American system, the courts can still ensure a level playing field for the politically powerless against the whims of even the most politically powerful,” said Greg Werkheiser, counsel for the Tribe.
The Court’s decision comes one day after the Attorney General rejected final efforts by the Tribe to resolve the matter without further litigation. The case will now proceed to trial.
The Tribe is represented pro bono by Greg Werkheiser and Eden Burgess of Cultural Heritage Partners, PLLC (www.culturalheritagepartners.com) and Frank Corrado of Barry, Corrado & Grassi, PC of Wildwood, New Jersey (www.capelegal.com). Cultural Heritage Partners is headquartered in Washington, DC and with offices in Europe, is a global law, government affairs, and strategy firm that handles issues related to cultural heritage, historic preservation, art and antiquities, and museums. Barry, Corrado & Grassi, PC is a law firm representing clients in civil rights, personal injury, real estate, criminal defense, and employment matters.