The legislation would reverse a court decision and exempt tribes from public access laws.

AUGUSTA (AP) – Two Maine Indian tribes that lost a lengthy court battle over access to their public records have taken their fight to the Legislature.

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony Thursday on a bill sponsored by Penobscot Nation Rep. Donna Loring that would negate the court decision that found the tribes were subject to Maine’s Freedom of Access laws.

The case involving a water dispute between the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes and several private paper companies led to an unsuccessful appeal by the tribes of a state court decision ordering them to turn over certain documents.

Penobscot Chief Barry Dana told legislators that the bill would correct the misconception that the tribe is covered by the access laws.

“My tribe is not an agency of the state of Maine. My tribe is not a creature of the state, like its political subdivisions. We looked and found no indication anywhere that your Legislature ever thought the Maine Freedom of Access Act would govern entities that are not, in fact, of the state’s making,” Dana said.

The Maine Press Association opposed the bill, saying the court already decided there are times when the tribes are bound by access laws.

Jeff Ham, executive secretary of the Maine Press Association, said the Freedom of Access Act is the wrong vehicle to address tribal sovereignty issues.

“If that is to be done, it needs to be done through the Maine Land Claims Settlement Act,” he said.

The court had based its decision on wording in the 1980 federal law which spelled out the relationship between the tribes and the state.

In May 2001, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Maine tribes were like cities and had to turn over water documents about their interactions with other governments.

But because the tribes are also independent governments, the court ruled that documents about internal deliberations could remain confidential.

Cushman Anthony, chairman of a tribal-state commission in charge of studying and updating the act, said its members believe the court decision was based on an improper interpretation of the land claims act.

“This is proper legislation,” Cushman said about Loring’s bill. “The Freedom of Access Act should in no way apply to the tribes,” he said.

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