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Supreme Court to rule on tribal-federal prosecution
Wednesday, October 1, 2003

The U.S. Supreme Court announced on Tuesday that it will resolve whether tribal governments have inherent sovereignty over all American Indians, not just members of their own tribes.

In a case with national significance, the justices accepted an appeal filed by the Bush administration. The Department of Justice is arguing that dual tribal and federal prosecution of Indian offenders does not violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on double jeopardy.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded otherwise and said that an Indian man who pleaded guilty in tribal court could not be tried for the same offense in federal court. A divided panel of judges voted 7-4 in March to strike down a federal indictment against Billy Jo Lara on charges that he punched a police officer on the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota.

But the 9th Circuit arrived at a different conclusion in June 2001. In an 11-0 decision that escaped review by the Supreme Court, a full panel of judges said tribes who prosecute members of other tribes are exercising sovereignty independent of the federal government.

The government is pushing for resolution of the conflict because the two circuits, along with the 10th, represent the "vast majority" of the American Indian and Alaska Native population. The 8th Circuit covers North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa while the 9th Circuit affects California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Nevada and Alaska.

The 8th Circuit decision "undermines effective law enforcement in Indian Country," Solicitor General Ted Olson wrote in a July 22 brief.

Alexander F.�Reichert, the attorney representing Lara, disputes the ruling's impact. In an interview, he said it will encourage tribal and federal government to work together on reservations.

"What I think it's going to do is force more cooperation between U.S. attorneys, tribal prosecutors and tribal courts," he said yesterday. "It will force the federal authorities to take a close look at tribal courts and tribal jurisdiction."

Tribes across the country are interested in the case because it impacts their push to regain full authority over their lands. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) plan to submit an amicus brief siding with the government, an NCAI spokesperson said yesterday

At issue is an amendment to the Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA) of 1968. Known as the "Duro fix," it was passed in 1991 in response to the Supreme Court's Duro v. Reina, decision, which held that tribes lack criminal jurisdiction over members of other tribes.

The 8th Circuit interpreted the Duro fix as an extension of tribal jurisdiction, not a recognition of it. "The Spirit Lake Nation exercises authority over external relations only to the extent that such a power has been delegated to it by Congress," Judge Roger L. Wollman wrote in U.S. v. Lara.

The 9th Circuit determined that Congress acted appropriately to affirm tribal rights. "When a tribe exercises inherent power, it flexes its own sovereign muscle, and the dual sovereignty exception to double jeopardy permits federal and tribal prosecutions for the same crime," wrote Judge M. Margaret McKeown in U.S. v Enas.

Although not fully discussed in the government's brief, the 7th Circuit, in U.S. v. Long, has upheld the inherent jurisdiction of the Menominee Nation of Wisconsin even though the tribe's federal status was terminated and later restored by Congress.

Relevant Documents:
Docket Sheet: No. 03-107 (Supreme Court) | Briefs: U.S. v. Lara (NCAI/NARF Supreme Court Project)

Get the Decision:
8th Circuit: U.S. v. Lara (en banc) (March 24, 2003) | U.S. v. Lara (panel) (June 20, 2002)

Related Decisions:
9th Circuit: U.S. v. Enas (June 29, 2001) | 7th Circuit: U.S. v. Long (March 20, 2003) |

Relevant Links:
NCAI/NARF Supreme Court Project -

Related Stories:
DOJ's Supreme Court brief backs sovereignty (7/30)
Tribal jurisdiction faces test before Supreme Court (07/03)
Court rulings on tribal jurisdiction are in conflict (04/16)
Inouye ties sovereignty to homeland security (02/25)
Tribes seek to overturn Supreme Court (2/27)
Native man denied by Supreme Court (01/22)
Court upholds dual tribal, federal prosecutions (7/2)

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