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NCCIA Wants Supreme Court To Review Occaneechi Case

HILLSBOROUGH, NC -- The N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs will appeal a decision by the N.C. Court of Appeals that ruled in favor of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation regarding the groupís efforts at obtaining state recognition. The appeal will be made before the N.C. Supreme Court.

"We figured that they were going to do that," said tribal member John Jeffries. "It's not surprising."

On Sept. 7, the commission voted to tell its lawyer, N.C. Assistant Attorney General David Steinbock, to appeal the decision by the N.C. Court of Appeals. Steinbock sent the N.C. Supreme Court a petition for discretionary review on Sept. 18, meaning the commission wants the court to review the case to decide whether it will hear it.

The Occaneechi have been entangled in a legal battle for 10 years with the N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs over whether the Occaneechi have met the legal criteria to be recognized by the state as an Indian tribe. An administrative law judge, who studied the criteria herself, ruled in 1999 that the tribe had met the criteria.

At this point, the commission could choose to recognize the tribe or appeal the decision. They appealed, and a Superior Court judge overturned the administrative law judge's recommendation to recognize the tribe.

The Occaneechi appealed that decision, and in August, the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the recommended decision of the administrative law judge was automatically adopted, meaning that the Occaneechi should have been granted tribal recognition.

The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Occaneechi 3-0 on what some may call a technicality -- the N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs did not make a decision concerning the administrative law judge's ruling by the 90-day deadline.

In his petition to the Supreme Court asking it not to hear the case, and therefore making the Court of Appeals decision the final decision, Occaneechi attorney Al McSurely pointed out the 90-day deadline law was passed to keep agencies from delaying their decisions.

Steinbock hopes the Supreme Court will decide to hear the case and will consider the other issues that the Court of Appeals did not rule on because it ruled those issues were moot since the commission violated the 90-day deadline rule.

McSurely wrote to the Supreme Court saying, "The intent of the statute deadline is to protect the rights of citizens who have spent precious time and money successfully vindicating their rights before the administrative law judge."

Each side seems to blame the other for taking up time and money during the multi-year legal battle.

Occaneechi chief Beverly Payne-Betts wrote a letter to Paul Brooks, chairman of the commission, urging him to reject the recommendation of a special committee who voted 4-1 to ask Steinbock to take it to the Supreme Court.

"This case has created deep divisions between the Indian people of this state," she wrote. "These divisions only serve to hurt Indian people further at a time when we should be striving to work together for the benefit of all Indian people in this State."

Payne-Betts pointed out that the commission has spent thousands of taxpayers' dollars to pay for the legal expense of defending its actions regarding the Occaneechi. "To continue to reject our people not only is wasteful of State funds but sets a bad precedent for our Indian youth," she wrote. "We should be teaching them to be responsible for their actions, not stubborn and intractable."

Steinbock pointed out that the commission had spent nearly all of its time for years dealing with the Occaneechi's petition for recognition.

"They have absolutely taken up the total time of the recognition committee for the past nine years," he said. "It's going to come to an end here pretty soon one way or another."

One of the sticking points regarding whether the Occaneechi met the criteria for recognition is whether they can prove the tribe is indigenous to North Carolina going back 200 years. The commission just never believed that the Occaneechi was a real tribe, Steinbock said.

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