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Supreme Court posts audio from hearing in domestic violence case

A view of the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo by Indianz.Com

The U.S. Supreme Court has posted audio from the oral argument in US v. Bryant, an Indian Country domestic violence case.

The April 19 hearing ran about 15 minutes shorter than the allotted hour for the argument. That's because the justices had fewer questions than normal for both sides in the case.

The apparent lack of controversy could spell trouble for Michael Bryant, who is challenging 18 U.S.C. § 117, a federal law that recognizes tribal court convictions in order to punish offenders who repeatedly abuse Indian women. His attorney admitted he never disputed the validity of the punishments he received from the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.

"I don't see how you can get around the fact you haven't complained," Justice Stephen Breyer told Steven C. Babcock, a federal public defender based in Montana. "So if it's a valid conviction, why can't you use it?"

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: U.S. Supreme Court Oral Argument in United States v. Bryant

Babcock instead argued that a federal court's reliance on an otherwise valid tribal conviction violated Bryant's right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The justices who asked questions did not appear to buy that line of thinking.

"So you're not challenging that the Bill of Rights do not apply because we've long held that don't apply to Indian courts, correct?" asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor. "Correct," Babcock responded.

Elizabeth B. Prelogar of the Solicitor General's Office at the Department of Justice represented the federal government in the case. She argued that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals got it wrong by refusing to treat Bryant as a "habitual offender" under the law issue.

"He has never suggested that he didn't actually commit those repeated acts of domestic violence that resulted in some five convictions in tribal court for assaulting his intimate partners," Prelogar said of the defendant.

Contrary to the 9th Circuit, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals have upheld the use of tribal convictions. The split poses a major issue because it would leave Indian women in a large number of states -- including California and Washington -- without the same protections as their counterparts in other regions.

The Supreme Court's decision -- which is expected by the end of June -- will resolve the split.

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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