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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Washington Supreme Court overrules 1924 conviction of Yakama hunter

The majority of Washington state’s Supreme Court agreed that overruling an unjust conviction from 1924 can redresses racist harm in a step toward reconciliation.

(CN) — In a 7-2 ruling on Thursday, the Washington state Supreme Court overturned a century-old judgment of a Yakama tribal member that denied his right to hunt in areas once guaranteed through an 1855 treaty with the U.S. government.

“The treaty between the United States and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation explicitly enumerates many rights reserved by the Yakama people, including the right to fish in their usual and accustomed places and to hunt on open and unclaimed lands,” Chief Justice Steven C. González wrote in the order.

Yet, despite this right, Washington state’s highest court affirmed an illegal hunting conviction of Yakama citizen Jim Wallahee when he killed a deer on ceded Yakama land in 1924.

That order, led by Washington Supreme Court Justice Warren Tolman in 1927, found that the “Indian Treaty of 1855, reserving to the Indians the privilege of hunting upon ‘open and unclaimed lands,’” no longer applied once Washington achieved statehood in 1889.

“Our decision in Wallahee was incorrect about the nature of treaties and treaty-protected rights, relied on precedent that has since been abrogated, and advanced justifications for violence against Native people,” González wrote. “Mr. Wallahee’s conviction was incorrect on the law, harmful and an injustice.”

What effect this decision has after 100 years, González explained, comes down to addressing past harms.

“Our nation’s history is rife with such injustices,” González concluded. “It is no victory to sanitize the past, but there is a difference between erasing history and redressing harm. This court’s wrongful decision can be characterized as an instructive feature of the past only by those who do not feel its sting in the present.”

“The Doctrine of Discovery and its use in law to justify state-sponsored violence are a stain on this nation. Today we take a step toward reconciliation: we grant the motion to intervene, grant the motion to recall the mandate, and grant the motion to vacate Mr. Wallahee’s conviction.”

Yet not all of the en banc panel agreed with the majority’s findings on Thursday — even if the 1927 decision had been wrong on the law and inherently racist.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Barbara Madsen explained that, despite the case’s historical injustice, Wallahee's estate has no standing to the right the historical wrong.  

“The majority decides the case nonetheless and compounds its error by recalling the mandate and granting relief contrary to our appellate rules and case law interpreting them,” Madsen wrote. “I cannot sign on to a decision that, in the pursuit of justice, sets aside processes binding all litigants who seek justice.”

Madsen’s dissent — with which Justice Debra Stephens concurred — further argued that removing Wallahee risks destroying evidence how the court discriminated against Indigenous people, “easing the way for future generation to look back and conclude that it never existed at all.”

“Removing all trace of the offensive language and tropes in Wallahee salves the shame of discrimination by erasing that shame. It does not eradicate it,” Madsen wrote. “Rather than wiping away the discomfort and shame of past decisions, allowing the case to exist (disavowed and without authority) helps ensure that future generations can see the documented history of discrimination and disenfranchisement of a people. It is our history. We cannot forget it. For these reasons, I respectfully dissent.”

Those who have fought to have the ruling overturned, however, are celebrating the majority’s decision.

Yakama Nation citizen and attorney Jack Fiander, 71 — who pursued the case even after the 2007 death of Wallahee's family member who revived the case — appealed Wallahee’s conviction for a second time in 2015 after the state legislature passed a law that allowed courts to overturn old fishing and hunting convictions that violated treaty agreements.

“I am proud of the Washington State Supreme Court,” Fiander wrote in an email on Thursday. “At a time when many state and local governments have undertaken to suppress information about their state's sometimes shameful past history, Washington courts have not hesitated to openly acknowledge and address it. Doing so instills faith in our justice system.”

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Government, History

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