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Supreme Court schedules hearing in Indian Country domestic violence case

Native women and their supporters rallied at the U.S. Supreme Court on December 7, 2015, as the justices heard Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a tribal jurisdiction case. Photo by Indianz.Com

The U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing its next Indian law case with just eight members.

The justices have scheduled oral arguments in US v. Bryant for April 19. The outcome will determine whether domestic violence offenders who repeatedly abuse Native women can be punished more harshly.

So far, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals have agreed that tribal domestic violence convictions can be used against habitual offenders even if the defendant wasn't provided with an attorney. Normally, the lack of counsel would be barred under the under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution but the courts determined that tribal governments aren't constrained by the Bill of Rights.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, however, came to a different conclusion, casting doubt on a law that was written to address the high rates of domestic violence in Indian Country. According to the Department of Justice, more than 46 percent of Native Americans have been victims of physical violence, rape, or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.

The case has attracted significant attention in Indian Country. The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center submitted a brief that was joined by 34 other organizations aimed at preventing violence against women.

"At its core, domestic violence is about 'gaining control of another person,'" the brief reads. "Thus, the first incident of abuse is usually not the last, and when less abusive acts fail to establish sufficient control, a perpetrator resorts to more dangerous acts."

The National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal organization, also submitted a brief to support the use of tribal convictions. So did a group of former federal prosecutors who served in the Obama and Bush administrations and who used the law to punish repeat offenders.

Together, the 8th Circuit, the 9th Circuit and the 10th Circuit cover a vast swath of Indian Country. More than 500 tribes are located in the three circuits so the split poses a major issue that only the Supreme Court can resolve.

8th Circuit Decisions:
US v Harlan (February 16, 2016)
US v. Cavanaugh (July 6, 2011)

9th Circuit Decisions:
US v. Bryant (July 6, 2015)
US v. Bryant (September 30, 2014)

10th Circuit Decision:
US v. Shavanaux (July 26, 2011)

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