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Mont. court accepts tribal court convictions

Tribal court records can be used against tribal members in state courts, the Montana Supreme Court ruled this week.

In a near unanimous decision, the court recognized four tribal court DUI convictions of Eugene Spotted Eagle, a member of the Blackfeet Nation. The vote in Monday's ruling was 5-1.

"To disregard a valid tribal court conviction would imply that Montana only recognizes the Blackfeet Tribe's right to self-government until it conflicts with Montana law," wrote Justice James C. Nelson for the majority.

The decision means that Spotted Eagle faces a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, sentence for a September 2001 drunk driving incident. State law allows prosecutors to "enhance" a DUI charge using tribal court records.

Spotted Eagle challenged the law on the grounds that the Blackfeet court system does not provide him with adequate protections under the U.S. Constitution. In Blackfeet court, for example, criminal defendants are not guaranteed a right to be represented by a lawyer. In state court, Spotted Eagle would be covered under the Sixth Amendment.

But the state countered that it should respect a tribe's right to self-governance. "A fundamental aspect of sovereignty is the respect accorded a sovereign by other sovereigns," wrote assistant attorney general Mark W. Mattioli in a brief. "Spotted Eagle's assertions that his prior DUI convictions were valid for purposes of tribal law, but not for purposes of Montana or federal law, is to accord second-class status to tribal sovereignty."

The majority of the Montana Supreme Court agreed with this line of thinking, noting that the state law in question is not used to determine guilt. But a dissenting judge questioned this logic and said he would have sided with Spotted Eagle.

"In true oxymoronic fashion, our court has said to Mr. Spotted Eagle, 'Out of deference to your tribe, we accord you fewer protections than guaranteed to individual citizens by the Montana Constitution,'" wrote Justice W. William Leaphart.

The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 provides certain guarantees to tribal members, many of which follow the U.S. Constitution. But it doesn't force tribes to comply with a Sixth Amendment right to counsel or a First Amendment separation of church and state.

Get the Decision:
State v. Spotted Eagle (June 23, 2003)

Relevant Documents:
Briefs, Opinions in State v. Spotted Eagle (State Law Library of Montana)

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