A tribal judge has tossed a lawsuit in which a former member of Osage Nation Congress accused the current speaker of slander and other wrongdoing before the 2020 Osage elections.
Former Congress member Shannon Edwards alleged that Speaker Angela Pratt conspired with other members of Congress to disqualify her from ever holding Osage office and smeared her with the claim that, in violation of the Osage Constitution and her oath to Congress, Edwards had sworn allegiance to another sovereign, namely the Yavapai-Apache Nation, which contracted with her in 2020 to perform work as a judge on its appellate court.
Edwards insisted that she sued Pratt as a private citizen, not in her role as a member of Congress and its speaker.
Osage Trial Court Judge William Oldfield said determining in which role Pratt had acted was “of critical importance” in rendering his decision to dismiss the case – and he ultimately found that despite Edwards’ insistence that she was suing Pratt in her personal capacity, she had “failed to allege any additional, relevant facts to support such a conclusion.” (Emphasis Oldfield’s)
“Politics is never clean,” Oldfield observed. “Constituents can grow weary of heated political debate. However, in a representative democracy, it is essential that elected officials are free to advance opinions and make decisions that sometimes perpetuate enemies amongst colleagues. This process can and does create political rivals.
“Defendant Pratt clearly opposed and criticized Plaintiff Edwards. However, Pratt did so ‘within the Legislative sphere’ and in this lawsuit, Defendant Pratt is immune from her actions within the scope of her Congressional duties.”
The conclusion that Pratt was acting in her official capacity was one that the Nation adopted early on – and the Nation put its money on that wager, paying over $15,000 to the law firm of Barrow & Grimm to defend Pratt in just the last quarter of 2021.
Looking to waive rules
The 2020 kerfuffle occurred just days before the deadline for Congressional candidates to file to run for office, and Edwards was running for reelection to a fourth term – and Pratt wanted her disqualified from running as well as barred permanently from holding any elected Osage office.
At the outset of the saga, on Feb. 19, 2020, Attorney General Clint Patterson informed Edwards that he had received complaints that she was violating the Osage Constitution through her service to Yavapai. The same day, Edwards resigned from the position, a move that Pratt and others said they took as an acknowledgment of wrongdoing.
Pratt, Edwards wrote in an affidavit, “pronounced that regardless of my resignation, I had still violated the Osage Constitution and should be removed without due process. Congresswoman [Brandy] Lemon listened to Pratt and stated my service and resignation was like stealing a car then feeling guilty and trying to give it back. Pratt did not dispel her of that position.”
In late February, Pratt suggested to fellow Congress members on the Rules and Ethics Committee that they should call a special session of Congress, “waive the rules of procedure for removal and move straight to a vote on a motion for removal,” according to a transcript of the meeting.
The ethics committee voted unanimously to approve Pratt’s motion, but it never progressed to Congress as a whole. A Committee of Inquiry was scheduled for June 23, 2020, but the issue became moot when Edwards placed 13th in a field of 15 candidates for Congress during the June 1 election.
During a court hearing on April 14, Edwards said that Congress could revive the issue at any time and censure her as a private Osage citizen, giving her no notice or affording her due process. In fact, she wrote, well after she had returned to life as a private citizen, in April 2021, Pratt introduced a resolution in the Osage Congress stating that Edwards violated the Constitution and requesting that she be censured. No action was taken on that resolution.
Taking oaths to other sovereigns
In her pleadings, Edwards also points out that many other elected Osage officials have taken oaths to other sovereigns without anyone so much as batting an eye. Congressman Billy Keene, she wrote, has sworn an oath to the state of Oklahoma as a lawyer and member of the bar, as has Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, also a lawyer who has taken oaths not only to the state but to other Indian nations. Even the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Edwards added, has been listed in the recent past as an associate judge for the Tulalip Nation.
The Osage Constitution says that no member of Congress shall hold another office or “position of profit” within the Osage Nation or “any other tribal office under another Indian nation.” When the issue arose as Standing Bear was running for Congress in 2010 while he was also attorney general of the Pawnee Nation, Edwards said a legal opinion commissioned by the Election Commission concluded that the term “hold office” meant elected office, not appointed – as she was appointed to Yavapai.
As for the chief justice, the Constitution only bars Osage Nation judges of all stripes from holding any other office or “position of profit” under the Osage Nation. It never mentions other Indian nations, and it is common for Native American judges to work part-time for several different tribes simultaneously.
Congress members can be disqualified for holding “any other tribal office under another Indian nation,” the Constitution says, but the law extends the prohibition even further for the chief and assistant chief, who cannot hold any position whatsoever with any tribal, federal, state, or county government.
Long service, but honor for it denied
In her claim for damages, Edwards said that Pratt’s actions had damaged her relationship with other tribes because Pratt had called and emailed other nations. Edwards said Pratt had damaged Edwards’ relationship with the Osage Nation, for whom Edwards had served as the first Supreme Court justice in more than 90 years and “kept the Nation through Congress from honoring [Edwards] for her service to the Osage Nation.”
During the hearing on April 14, Edwards also said she had suffered physical ailments caused by severe emotional distress over Pratt’s actions.
In his order dismissing the case, Oldfield indicated he wasn’t “inclined” to even consider claims by either Edwards or Pratt to award costs or attorney fees to either party but noted that he would “entertain post-trial motions in that regard if filed.
“Finally,” Oldfield added, “Plaintiff [Edwards] has … previously been given leave to amend her Complaint. The Court does not find that granting her leave to amend again would cure the inherent deficiencies therein. Therefore, the Court considers this a final, appealable Order.”