The Norman Transcript

November 10, 2010

Tribes fear side effects of SQ 755

By Trevor Brown
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — David Narcomey, a business owner and member of the Seminole Nation, said he sees dangers beyond just the religious issues at stake over the controversial Sharia law state question.

Narcomey agrees with several law experts that tribal relations and international trade within the state could feel the unintended consequences of State Question 755. Voters overwhelmingly approved the ballot measure last week that bars judges from considering international or Islamic Sharia law when deciding cases.

“This could blossom into a major threat to the sovereignty of our Indian nations,” Narcomey said. “There really is just a remote chance it could happen, but Pandora’s box can be opened with just that one case.”

The state question garnered national attention when Muneer Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Oklahoma, filed a lawsuit against the state question on grounds it unfairly targets his religion. A U.S. District court judge issued a temporary restraining order Monday to stop the state question from taking effect.

Oklahoma University law professor Taiawagi Helton, along with many other legal experts, said he thinks there are First Amendment problems by singling out the one religion. But Helton said the lesser-discussed language created by the state question that courts cannot look to the “legal precepts of other nations or cultures” could pose a problem if it is applied to tribal legal cases.

Helton, who specializes in American Indian law, said the “ambiguous” language could be interpreted in a way for the state to reject rulings based on tribal laws. He said an “opportunistic” person could argue tribal laws do not apply in arbitration cases or when the state is called to resolve a dispute.

Barbara Warner, executive director of the Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission, said she too has heard concerns the state question could carry a “detrimental” impact to tribes.

However, Helton said tribal nations should not worry too much yet since he is confident courts will strike down the state question. In addition, he said federal law often would trump the state’s ruling because of the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“I think you have to separate the likely effect from the possible effect,” he said. “And the likely effect is it won’t have much effect at all.”

Effect on international trade

Peter Krug, an OU law professor who specializes in international law, said Oklahoma businesses that deal with companies overseas also could feel the side effects from the state questions.

Krug said many transactions between companies rely on international treaties to uphold contracts. With the state question banning courts from making rulings based on “international law,” he said this would create instability of how state judges can rule on these types of cases.

Krug said he doubts the authors of the state question intended to make changes to international treaties. However, he said lawyers could take advantage of the lack of clarity in the language of the state question’s Constitutional amendment to challenge cases.

“I do see this as something courts will have to wrestle with,” he said. “I think we will see extended legal arguments from both sides, and, quite honestly, any court decision that addresses State Question 755 will likely be appealed.”

Trevor Brown covers the Oklahoma statehouse for CNHI and The Transcript. He can be reached at tbrown@cnhi.com.