SCOTUSBlog: Supreme Court has few questions in Indian law 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 heard arguments in US v. Bryant on Tuesday but had few questions for both sides in the closely-watched Indian law case. Amy Howe of SCOTUSBlog believes the quiet bench bodes well for a federal law that allows tribal court convictions to be used against offenders who repeatedly abuse Indian women:
The Supreme Court is often described as a “hot bench” – a place where the questions fly fast and furious. But when the Court heard oral arguments today in the case of Michael Bryant, it was more like a lukewarm bench: three of the eight Justices – Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Elena Kagan – did not ask any questions at all, and the five Justices who did ask questions had far fewer than we would normally expect. What was scheduled as a sixty-minute argument took only forty-four, with lawyers for both sides sitting down before their time was up. Although the relative dearth of questions in the case makes it harder to make predictions about the outcome of the case with any confidence, it seems likely that the Court will reject Bryant’s challenge, and the government will prevail.

At issue in the case was whether the Constitution allows the federal government to use Bryant’s numerous domestic-violence convictions to prosecute him under Section 117(a) of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, which makes it a federal crime to “commit a domestic assault within . . . Indian country” if you already have “a final conviction on at least 2 separate prior occasions in Federal, State, or Indian tribal court proceedings for” domestic-violence offenses. If Bryant had been tried in a state or federal court and sentenced to prison time, he would have had a right under the Sixth Amendment to have a lawyer appointed to represent him; if he didn’t get a lawyer, those convictions could not be used to subject him to charges under Section 117(a). But the domestic-violence convictions on which the government is trying to rely in Bryant’s case came in tribal court, where the Sixth Amendment does not apply and Bryant was therefore not entitled to have a lawyer appointed to represent him. Bryant contends that, even if the tribal-court convictions themselves did not violate the Constitution, using those convictions to expose him to a prosecution under Section 117(a) does violate the Sixth Amendment.

Get the Story:
Argument analysis by Amy Howe: A quiet bench on uncounseled tribal-court convictions (SCOTUSBlog 4/19)

Supreme Court Documents:
Oral Argument Transcript | Docket Sheet No. 15-420: US v. Bryant | Question Presented

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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