Supreme Court Upholds Use of Tribal Court Convictions in Federal Cases >>

June 27th, 2016

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.”

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