Cherokee Nation’s New Constitution Takes Effect

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June 07, 2006

Cherokee Nation’s New Constitution Takes Effect

A review and comparison between the 1976 and 1999 Constitutions of the Cherokee Nation in preparation for the Ratification Vote on July 26, 2003

Comparison of the 1976 and 1999 Cherokee Nation Constitutions, in pdf format

Constitutional Forum - Taped April 14, 2003, includes video and audio.

Audio only version, this may work better for those us who have a slow internet connection.

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The Cherokee Nation’s new Constitution is effective. Justices in the Cherokee Nation’s highest court have ruled that the Constitution has received all proper approvals by passing a vote of the Cherokee people in July of 2003.

“This is a historic day for the Cherokee Nation,” said Chad Smith, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. “Our Constitution requires that the people review our Constitutional laws every 20 years, and modify when necessary. Today, the (Supreme) Court has reaffirmed the obvious, we were a government exercising inherent sovereignty before there was a United States. The greatest exercise of that sovereignty is to pass our own Constitution, without interference from outsiders.”

A stumbling block for the tribe was a self-imposed section of the tribe’s 1975 Constitution that required presidential approval authority. In April 2002, after heavy communication and negotiation by the tribe with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the latter agreed the Cherokee Nation could amend the 1976 Constitution—by referendum vote—to remove the clause regarding presidential approval authority. In a general election, that referendum vote was held May 24, 2003, at which time Cherokee citizens voted to eliminate the federal approval clause.

The Supreme Court decision was based on a letter from Neal A. McCaleb, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The letter states that it was the intention of McCaleb that his letter “serve as full and final approval” to let the Cherokee voters have final approval or rejection of the amendment removing federal approval. The Supreme Court’s decision stated that federal approval in the 1975 Constitution was self-imposed by the Cherokee Nation and that, as such, it could be “effectively removed from the 1975 Constitution by the vote of the citizens…”

On July 26, 2003, in a run-off election, tribal voters were asked to ratify the “new” 1999 Constitution or to retain the old 1976 Constitution. At that time, Cherokee citizens voted 54 to 46 percent to ratify the new constitution. The Court ruled that no further approval from the federal government is necessary for the Constitution to take effect.

The 1999 Constitution has several major changes to the Cherokee Nation government. Article VI creates the office of Speaker of the Tribal Council, who will chair Tribal Council meetings and be third in the line of succession to the head of government (behind the Principal Chief and the Deputy Principal Chief). It also creates two additional Council seats, who will be elected at-large by those voters residing outside the Cherokee Nation’s territorial boundaries. Until such elections can take place, the Council has 60 days to seat those new Council members. The new Constitution also calls for staggered terms for the Tribal Council. It also imposes term limits on the Council and the Principal Chief and Deputy Principal Chief. Elected officials may not hold any office for more than two consecutive terms. The Justices clarified that the term limits will apply to officials elected during the next election.

The new Constitution provides for the creation of two new appointed posts: Marshal and Attorney General.

The Constitution also changes the name of the Cherokee Nation’s highest court to “Supreme Court” and increases the size of the Supreme Court from three to five members.

For a side-by-side comparison of the 1976 and the 1999 Constitutions, visit the Cherokee Nation’s Web site at