ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Alexander Haig and other former government officials can be sued by Indians who contend the military illegally intervened to end the armed occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973, a federal court ruled Tuesday.
In a 5-4 decision, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals backed a November ruling by one of its three-judge panels. The panel reversed a lower court’s dismissal of complaints by the Indians that their constitutional rights had been violated.
The 70-day occupation of the Pine Ridge Reservation town began Feb. 27, 1973, as a protest to draw attention to complaints by Indians of poor treatment by the federal government.
Two Indians were killed during the siege and two federal officials were wounded. Up to 300 Indians were involved in the occupation, which lasted until a surrender was worked out on May 8, 1973.
The Indians charged in their suit that Air Force planes had been used for surveillance of the occupied town and high-ranking military officers were on hand to direct the government’s effort to end the standoff. They also contended that Army units in Colorado had been placed on standby. At the time, Haig was vice chief of staff of the Army.
The government argued that the Indians had no claim, and a U.S. District Court in South Dakota agreed. The full appeals court said the matter could go to trial.
The three-judge panel ruled that military personnel should have been used only with specific authorization by Congress or President Nixon.
Federal laws and U.S. Supreme Court rulings had attempted to limit the use of the military for domestic unrest since the nation was founded, the panel said.
″The use of military forces to seize civilians can expose civilian government to the threat of military rule and the suspension of constitutional liberties,″ the panel said. ″On a lesser scale, military enforcement of the civil law leaves the protection of vital Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights in the hands of persons who are not trained to uphold these rights.″
In his dissent to the full court ruling, Judge George Fagg of Des Moines, Iowa, said he believed that the actions of Haig and other government officials did not violate the constitutional rights of the Indians.
″Here, it is truly ironic that military officials who responded to requests for assistance by civilian authorities and who in the face of an armed uprising acted not to subvert but to preserve and protect the Constitution and restore civilian rule now face substantial monetary liability,″ Fagg wrote.
″In fact, the entire purpose behind the actions taken was to ensure and restore domestic tranquility, a goal pointedly identified by the Founding Fathers in the Preamble of the Constitution,″ he wrote.
The opinion did not say if the Indians were seeking monetary damages.