Isleta Pueblo Politics

By Christopher L. Abeita

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Eliminating Political Opposition

Ultra Vires800px-Tribal_Council_Building,_Isleta_Pueblo_NM

The Isleta Tribal Council does not have the power to suspend a Council Member from their elected office. The Isleta Tribal Constitution does not contain any language that empowers the Council to suspend someone elected onto the Council. Nor, does the Council have the inherent power to suspend a duly elected Council Member.

Nevertheless, a few years ago, our Council was suddenly suspending various elected officials from the Council for up to 90 days at a time. Some Council Members suffered multiple suspensions. This came about because of political infighting.

At that time, Pablo Padilla, the Tribal Attorney, advised the Council that they have the power to suspend each other. So, when a faction of the Council gained enough votes, they would punish other Council Members with a suspension.  They often took these illegal actions in secrecy by calling an “executive session.”

Eventually, in an effort to legitimize the unlawful suspensions, the Council created an “Ethics Board.” This Board was responsible for enforcing an “Ethics Code.” The Board could conduct hearings and decide whether a Tribal Official should be punished for violating the so called, “Ethics Code.”

Once again, there is nothing in the Constitution that empowers an “Ethics Board” to suspend duly elected Tribal Officials. The Council cannot delegate or give a power that it does not possess. Nevertheless, a majority faction of the Council, with the legal advice of Pablo Padilla, used the Ethics Board as a mechanism to suspend political opponents.

When the power of the “Ethics Board” and the Council was challenged in Court, our Judges closed their eyes and sat on the cases. They did absolutely nothing to examine whether the suspensions were constitutional. Why? Because the Judges, at that time, were political stooges. They lacked the courage to properly resolve those cases. They were more interested in keeping their jobs. So, they did nothing.

For more than 3 years, Chief Justice William Johnson failed to ensure that the Isleta Appellate Court provided judicial scrutiny on the case challenging the actions of the Council to suspend a duly elected official. As a result, every official that was suspended suffered an injustice because the Council prevented them from representing the people that voted for them. Essentially, the Council silenced the voices of the people. They silenced the voices of tribal members. 

As of this date, the Isleta Tribal Council and the Isleta Appellate Court have failed to explain where or how the Council gets the power to suspend a duly elected official.

At best, they could claim that the power of suspension is inherent.  An inherent power is a power that is not explicitly referenced or mentioned in the Constitution. Some people claim that governments have inherent powers to enable the government to carry out its obligations or duties.

Even if you buy into the notion of inherent powers, the Tribal Constitution and the Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA) would still constrain those “inherent powers.”  In other words, the ICRA and the Constitution would restrict how the Council could use their “inherent powers.”

Once a person is elected, by the people, to serve on the Council, that person has the Constitutional Right to serve in office for a two year term because they were ELECTED by the people. They are not political appointees. The Constitution states:

“The term of office of ALL MEMBERS of the council shall be two (2) years . . . .1)Isleta Tribal Constitution, Art. V, Section (3).

So, when the Council suspends a Council Member, it’s essentially shortening the term of office of an elected official.

The power of suspending an ELECTED official is extremely dangerous because it enables a majority faction of the Council to silence political opposition.  The Council has tremendous powers. And, we the people, entrusted those powers to a body of people to HOPEFULLY ensure that those powers are not abused.

Now, once again, the Tribal Council is considering walking down the wrong path because Secretary Barbara Sanchez wants to suspend Verna Teller. To justify her position, Sanchez argues that Teller failed to complete the meeting minutes for the last term. Even if that’s true, this Council lacks the constitutional power to suspend Teller because that power does not exist within our Constitution.

If a Secretary fails to execute their duties, then it is the responsibility of the Council to take appropriate action against THEIR Secretary during THEIR term of office.  So, it was the duty of the prior Council to decide whether punitive measures were necessary and, if so, to exercise such authority in accordance with our Constitution. But, they did not. Rightly or wrongly, the prior Council failed to take any action against THEIR Secretary.

Since the prior Council took no action, the current Council lacks the constitutional authority to take any punitive measures against Teller.  But, the question is whether Sanchez will be able to convince a majority of the current Council to walk in the wrong direction.

Barbara Sanchez Maneuvers Council to Suspend Verna Teller


References   [ + ]

1. Isleta Tribal Constitution, Art. V, Section (3).

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