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Impeached tribal judges sue federal agency over intervention

July 9, 1997

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) _ Three impeached judges of the Cherokee Nation filed a lawsuit today in a bid to end the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs’ intervention in a dispute that has divided the 182,000-member tribe.

Justices Ralph Keen, Dwight Birdwell and Phillip Viles Jr., who were ousted in April by the tribal council controlled by Principal Chief Joe Byrd, say they want the BIA to stop interfering in tribal affairs.

Their lawsuit seeks an injunction ordering BIA police off the Cherokees’ 14-county area of jurisdiction in Oklahoma.

The nation’s second-largest Indian tribe, based in Tahlequah, has been embroiled in strife since February. The BIA took over law enforcement in April as tensions escalated between Byrd and members of the tribe’s judicial branch.

BIA intervention in tribal affairs has been a sensitive issue to Indians trying to protect tribal sovereignty.

The justices have issued arrest warrants for Byrd and have opposed a new security force hired to replace 14 marshals fired by Byrd.

``Once the armed BIA occupying army is withdrawn, and the Cherokee Marshal Service is reinstated to their lawful position, Chief Byrd’s ragtag `security guards’ will flee and the chief will be brought to justice,″ the three justices said in a statement issued by their attorneys in Tulsa.

``Except for the BIA’s actions in occupying Indian country for the last month, the Cherokee constitutional government would have peacefully resolved this problem by now.″

The BIA intervened in April to begin providing law enforcement on tribal land because Byrd had fired the marshals, who refused to leave. Byrd then hired his own armed security force. The tribal council requested the BIA’s presence, fearing violence between the two rival groups.

The BIA has claimed its presence would be neutral and short term while the Cherokees work out the conflict.

The controversy erupted Feb. 25 when the marshals served a search warrant on Byrd’s office. The warrant, issued by the court, was for documents linked to an investigation into possible misspent tribal money.

Byrd, claiming the raid was unconstitutional, fired the marshals and said he would only follow court orders he interpreted as constitutional.

A federal lawsuit filed in Muskogee by the ousted marshals was thrown out of court last month.

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