Supreme Court Upholds Use of Tribal Court Convictions in Federal Cases

Supreme Court Upholds Use of Tribal Court Convictions in Federal Cases

On Tuesday, June 14th, the U.S. Supreme Court — in United States v. Bryant — upheld the use of a defendant’s prior uncounseled tribal court convictions in a federal prosecution charging the defendant as a habitual domestic violence offender. The unanimous 8 – 0 ruling is hailed as a victory for tribal sovereignty, tribal court jurisdiction, and domestic violence prevention in Indian Country.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg authored the 8 – 0 opinion. The Court recounted the disturbing history of Bryant’s abuse, deeming it “illustrative of the domestic violence problem existing in Indian country.” The Court noted that Bryant has a record of over 100 tribal-court convictions, including several misdemeanor convictions for domestic assault. “On one occasion, Bryant hit his live-in girlfriend on the head with a beer bottle and attempted to strangle her. On another, Bryant beat a different girlfriend, kneeing her in the face, breaking her nose, and leaving her bruised and bloodied….”

Citing Bryant’s own brief, the Court noted that his tribal-court convictions violated no constitutional right because the Sixth Amendment does not apply to tribal-court proceedings. Instead, the Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA) guides requirements for tribal court convictions. As a result, the Court held that “because Bryant’s tribal-court convictions occurred in proceedings that complied with ICRA and were therefore valid when entered, use of those convictions as predicate offenses in a [federal habitual offender] prosecution does not violate the Constitution.”

Supreme Court Deadlock Upholds Tribal Civil Jurisdiction in Dollar General

Supreme Court Deadlock Upholds Tribal Civil Jurisdiction in Dollar General

On Thursday, June 23rd, an equally divided U.S. Supreme Court, in Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, affirmed a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that tribal courts have jurisdiction to try civil tort claims brought against non-Indians for actions occurring on Indian lands.

The deadlock permits the family of a Native child who alleged abuse at a Dollar General store on the reservation to seek justice in the Mississippi Band of Choctaw tribal court system. The Dollar General Corporation, reporting $19 billion in revenue in 2014, faces a $2.5 million claim for civil damages.

The 4-4 ruling does not set national tribal precedent. Instead, the ruling is limited to the Fifth Circuit, which includes tribes located in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. As a result of the limited precedent, this issue is not resolved and will likely be reviewed by the Court again the near future.

The deadlocked decision only serves to further highlight the importance of the upcoming election for President, as the next President of the United States will likely appoint the next 2 to 3 U.S. Supreme Court justices.