Residency dispute brewing in Cherokee Election

Julia Coates, candidate for Deputy Chief, Cherokee Nation

Julia Coates, candidate for Deputy Chief

A challenge to the candidacy of Julia Coates for the office of Deputy Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation has been filed and heard by the Cherokee Nation Election Commission. They ruled against Coates, but from the transcript released yesterday it is clear the Commission cared little for Cherokee Law.

Undisputed are the facts that Julia Coates currently works as a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) teaching Native American Studies. She was born in Pryor, Oklahoma and first worked for the Cherokee Nation in 2000 teaching the forty-hour Cherokee history course to over 7,000 students. She helped organize twenty-two “At Large” Cherokee communities and, in 2007, Coates was elected to the Tribal Council by a 75 percent margin an office she still holds.

Now term limited as a Counselor, Coates filed for the office of Deputy Principal Chief and is represented in the proceedings by Chad Smith, former chief and candidate again for the top job, challenging current Chief Bill John Baker.

Four candidates participated in the first debate for the 2015 Cherokee Nation election. From left to right; Julia Coates (Deputy), Charlie Soap (Chief), Chad Smith (Chief), Lee Keener (Deputy).

Four candidates participated in the first debate for the 2015 Cherokee Nation election. From left to right; Julia Coates (Deputy), Charlie Soap (Chief), Chad Smith (Chief), Lee Keener (Deputy).

Section 34 of Title 26 of the Cherokee Nation Election Code, Establishment of Residence states: Proof of a bona fide permanent residence, necessary to qualify as a candidate for Council, Principal Chief and Deputy Principal Chief shall be regulated by the election Commission, subject to the following definitions and requirements: Definition: Residence is synonymous with the term domicile or abode and means a place where the candidate has a true, fixed and permanent home and to which, whenever absent, the candidate has the intention to return.

It is important to note that the Election Commission is comprised of members appointed by Chief Bill John Baker.

Election Commission attorney Harvey Chaffin, left, and EC Chairman Bill Horton confer during the March 20 eligibility hearing. Photo: CherokeePhoenix.org

Election Commission attorney Harvey Chaffin, left, and EC Chairman Bill Horton confer during the March 20 eligibility hearing. Photo: CherokeePhoenix.org

Election Commissioner Bill Horton stated at the March 20, 2015 hearing of the challenge, “We don’t care about the legal aspect of what this means and that means. We know what domicile is. A lot of people don’t know what domicile is. You go down the street and ask somebody what their domicile is and they’re liable to tell you their height. Most people don’t know what domicile is. Domicile is where you stay, where you lay your head down, where you are.” [Transcript P.66]

Fortunately, given Horton’s apparent contempt for “a lot of people” and lack of “care about the legal aspect of what [words] mean” the Cherokee Supreme Court will hear an appeal of the Election Commission’s decision in the coming week.

The Court will consider legal definitions and the facts of Coates’ permanent residency. Coates has owned several properties in Tahlequah and her current home, since 2008, is located on West Downing Street. Utilities are paid in her name and Coates returns to Tahlequah every month, on public Holidays, during summer months and for other reasons as business or personal interests may require. It is her permanent residence – her domicile – her ancestral home. She holds an Oklahoma Driver’s License, is registered to vote and files tax returns from that address. An attachment in her defense lists personal property kept in Tahlequah that could best be described as precious family heirlooms, research that comprises the foundation of her entire academic career and original Cherokee artworks and photos.

Cherokee Historic Enactment

Cherokee Historic Enactment

In contrast, Coates provides a copy of her lease of an apartment in Los Angeles that shows she only shares an apartment there with two other people.

By the standard Commissioner Horton applies to the meaning of domicile, every member of the US Congress lives in Washington, D.C. rather than in their respective state. Even within a state, many representatives live in the city of that state’s capital during legislative sessions. Frequently, representatives share living facilities to reduce costs – not exactly “flop houses,” but obvious to impartial observers as temporary work related residences. This is the case that Julia Coates makes of her employment based housing convenience.

The Cherokee Nation Supreme Court is expected to hear the appeal April 1 in contrast to the far more political Election Commission.  Assuming the Court is a law based body of respected attorneys known for their expertise and good judgment in the broader legal community, as many say, then one would think a more solidly reasoned decision will be forthcoming.

Tulsa Today will report on the Court’s decision in the Coates case and other issues in this important election cycle for the Cherokee Nation. We will provide this coverage not because of where we lay our head, but by where our hearts rest.