Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Native American Law
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The Major Crimes Act (MCA) provides that, within “the Indian country,” “[a]ny Indian who commits” certain enumerated offenses “shall be subject to the same law and penalties as all other persons committing any of [those] offenses, within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States,” 18 U.S.C. 1153(a). “Indian country” includes “all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government.” McGirt was convicted by an Oklahoma state court of sexual offenses. He unsuccessfully argued in state postconviction proceedings that the state lacked jurisdiction to prosecute him because he is an enrolled member of the Seminole Nation and his crimes took place on the Creek Reservation.The Supreme Court held that McGirt was entitled to a federal trial. For MCA purposes, land reserved for the Creek Nation since the 19th century remains “Indian country.” An 1856 Treaty promised that “no portion” of Creek lands “would ever be embraced or included within, or annexed to, any Territory or State,” 11 Stat. 700, and that the Creeks would have the “unrestricted right of self-government,” with “full jurisdiction” over enrolled Tribe members. Once a federal reservation is established, only Congress can diminish or disestablish it. Congress did not end the Creek Reservation during the “allotment era,” when Congress sought to pressure many tribes to abandon their communal lifestyles and parcel their lands into smaller lots owned by individual tribal members. Other limitations on the promised right to self-governance, including abolishing the Creeks’ tribal courts and requiring Presidential approval for certain tribal ordinances fell short of eliminating all tribal interest in the contested lands. Many of Oklahoma’s arguments rest “on state prosecutorial practices that defy the MCA, rather than on the law’s plain terms.” Acknowledging the potential consequences of its ruling, such as unsettling convictions and frustrating the state’s ability to prosecute future crimes, the Court stated that Oklahoma and its tribes have proven that they can work successfully together and Congress remains free to supplement its statutory directions about the lands. View "McGirt v. Oklahoma" on Justia Law

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An 1868 treaty between the United States and the Crow Tribe promised that in exchange for the Tribe’s territory in modern-day Montana and Wyoming, its members would “have the right to hunt on the unoccupied lands of the United States so long as game may be found thereon . . . and peace subsists,” 15 Stat. 650. In 2014, Wyoming charged Herrera with off-season hunting in Bighorn National Forest. The state court held that the treaty right expired upon Wyoming’s statehood and that, in any event, the national forest became categorically "occupied" when it was created.The Supreme Court vacated. Hunting rights under the Treaty did not expire upon Wyoming’s statehood. The crucial inquiry is whether Congress “clearly express[ed]” an intent to abrogate an Indian treaty right or whether a termination point identified in the treaty has been satisfied, The Wyoming Statehood Act does not clearly express an intent to end the Treaty's hunting right. There is no evidence in the Treaty that Congress intended the hunting right to expire at statehood, or that the Tribe would have understood it to do so. Bighorn National Forest did not become categorically “occupied” within the meaning of the Treaty when the national forest was created. Construing the treaty’s terms as “they would naturally be understood by the Indians,” the word “unoccupied” denoted an area free of residence or settlement by non-Indians. Nor would mining and logging of the forest lands before 1897 have caused the Tribe to view the Bighorn Mountains as occupied. The Court clarified that Bighorn National Forest is not categorically occupied, but that not all areas within the forest are necessarily unoccupied and did not address whether Wyoming could regulate the Treaty right “in the interest of conservation.” View "Herrera v. Wyoming" on Justia Law

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The State of Washington taxes “motor vehicle fuel importer[s]” who bring large quantities of fuel into the state by “ground transportation,” Wash. Code 82.36.010(4), (12), (16). Cougar, a wholesale fuel importer owned by a member of the Yakama Nation, imports fuel over Washington’s public highways for sale to Yakama-owned retail gas stations located within the reservation. In 2013, the state assessed Cougar $3.6 million in taxes, penalties, and licensing fees for importing motor vehicle fuel. Cougar argued that the tax, as applied to its activities, is preempted by an 1855 treaty between the United States and the Yakama Nation that reserves the Yakamas’ “right, in common with citizens of the United States, to travel upon all public highways,” 12 Stat. 953. The Washington Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. The statute taxes the importation of fuel, which is the transportation of fuel, so travel on public highways is directly at issue. In previous cases involving the treaty, the Court has stressed that its language should be understood as bearing the meaning that the Yakamas understood it to have in 1855; the historical record adopted by the agency and the courts below indicates that the treaty negotiations and the government’s representatives’ statements to the Yakamas would have led the Yakamas to understand that the treaty’s protection of the right to travel on the public highways included the right to travel with goods for purposes of trade. To impose a tax upon traveling with certain goods burdens that travel. View "Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Upper Skagit Indian Tribe purchased land and commissioned a boundary survey, which convinced the Tribe that about an acre of its land lay on the other side of a boundary fence between its land and land owned by the Lundgrens. The Lundgrens filed a quiet title action in Washington state court, arguing adverse possession and mutual acquiescence. The Washington Supreme Court rejected the Tribe’s sovereign immunity claim, reasoning that tribal sovereign immunity does not apply to in rem suits. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated and remanded. The precedent on which the state court relied (Yakima) addressed not the scope of tribal sovereign immunity, but a question of statutory interpretation of the Indian General Allotment Act of 1887. The Act authorized the President to allot parcels of reservation land to individual tribal members and directed the government to issue fee patents to the allottees. In 1934, Congress reversed course but did not withdraw the lands already conveyed so that Indian reservations sometimes contain both trust land held by the government and fee-patented land held by private parties. The Supreme Court held that the state collection of property taxes on fee-patented land within reservations was allowed under the Act; Yakima resolved nothing about the law of sovereign immunity. View "Upper Skagit Tribe v. Lundgren" on Justia Law

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Patchak filed suit challenging the authority of the Secretary of the Interior to invoke the Indian Reorganization Act, 25 U.S.C. 5108, and take into trust the Bradley Property, on which the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians wished to build a casino. In an earlier decision, the Supreme Court held that the Secretary lacked sovereign immunity and that Patchak had standing. While the suit was on remand, Congress enacted the Gun Lake Act, 128 Stat. 1913, which “reaffirmed as trust land” the Bradley Property, and provided that “an action . . . relating to [that] land shall not be filed or maintained in a Federal court and shall be promptly dismissed.” The D.C. Circuit and the Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of Patchak’s suit. Section 2(b) of the Gun Lake Act does not violate Article III of the Constitution. While Congress may not exercise the judicial power, it may make laws that apply retroactively to pending lawsuits, even when it effectively ensures that one side will win. Congress violates Article III when it “compel[s] . . . findings or results under old law,” but not when it “changes the law.” By stripping federal courts of jurisdiction over actions “relating to” the Bradley Property, section 2(b) changed the law and is a jurisdiction-stripping statute. When Congress strips federal courts of jurisdiction, it exercises a valid legislative power. View "Patchak v Zinke" on Justia Law

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The Lewises, driving on a Connecticut interstate, were struck by a vehicle driven by Clarke, a Tribal Gaming Authority employee, who was transporting Mohegan Sun Casino patrons. The Lewises sued Clarke in his individual capacity. The Supreme Court of Connecticut held that tribal sovereign immunity barred the suit because Clarke was acting within the scope of his employment when the accident occurred and did not consider whether Clarke should be entitled to sovereign immunity based on an indemnification statute. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. In a suit against a tribal employee in his individual capacity, the employee, not the tribe, is the real party in interest; tribal sovereign immunity is not implicated. The suit is based on Clarke's personal actions. Clarke, not the Gaming Authority, is the real party in interest. The Connecticut Supreme Court extended sovereign immunity for tribal employees beyond what common-law sovereign immunity principles would recognize for either state or federal employees. An indemnification provision cannot, as a matter of law, extend sovereign immunity to individual employees who would otherwise not fall under its protective cloak. Connecticut courts exercise no jurisdiction over the Tribe or Gaming Authority and indemnification is not a certainty, because Clarke will not be indemnified should the Gaming Authority determine that he engaged in “wanton, reckless, or malicious” activity. View "Lewis v. Clarke" on Justia Law

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Enacted in response to the high incidence of domestic violence against Native American women, 18 U.S.C. 117(a), applies to any person who “commits a domestic assault within . . . Indian country” and who has at least two prior convictions for domestic violence rendered “in Federal, State, or Indian tribal court proceedings.” The Sixth Amendment guarantees indigent defendants appointed counsel in state or federal proceedings in which a term of imprisonment is imposed, but does not apply in tribal-court proceedings. The Indian Civil Rights Act, (ICRA) which governs tribal-court proceedings, includes a right to appointed counsel only for sentences exceeding one year, 25 U.S.C. 1302(c)(2). Supreme Court precedent holds that convictions obtained in state or federal court in violation of a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel cannot be used in subsequent proceedings “to support guilt or enhance punishment for another offense” except for uncounseled misdemeanor convictions for which no prison term was imposed. The Ninth Circuit reversed Bryant’s section 117(a) conviction, finding that the Sixth Amendment precluded use of his prior, uncounseled, tribal-court convictions a predicate offenses. The Supreme Court reversed. Because Bryant’s tribal-court convictions complied with ICRA and were valid when entered, use of those convictions as predicate offenses in a section 117(a) prosecution does not violate the Constitution. Bryant’s sentence for violating section 117(a) punishes his most recent acts of domestic assault, not his prior crimes. He suffered no Sixth Amendment violation in tribal court, so he cannot “suffe[r] anew” from a prior deprivation. ICRA sufficiently ensures the reliability of tribal-court convictions, guaranteeing “due process of law,” providing other procedural safeguards, and allowing a prisoner to challenge the fundamental fairness of proceedings in federal habeas proceedings. View "United States v. Bryant" on Justia Law

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In 1854, the Omaha Tribe entered into a treaty with the United States to establish a 300,000-acre reservation and to “cede” and “forever relinquish all right and title to” its remaining land in present-day Nebraska for a fixed price. In 1865, the Tribe entered into another treaty, agreeing to sell land to the government for a fixed sum. In 1872, the Tribe sought to sell more land. Instead of a fixed-sum purchase, Congress authorized the Secretary of the Interior to survey, appraise, and sell tracts of reservation land to settlers and to deposit proceeds with the Treasury for the Tribe’s benefit. Congress took the same approach in 1882 with respect to roughly 50,000 acres of reservation land (22 Stat. 341). Peebles purchased land under the terms of the 1882 Act and established the village of Pender. In 2006, the Tribe sought to subject Pender retailers to tits amended beverage control ordinance pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 1161 (permitting tribes to regulate liquor sales on reservation land and in “Indian country”). Concluding that the 1882 Act did not diminish the Reservation, the district court ruled in favor of the Tribe. The Eighth Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed. Only Congress may diminish the boundaries of an Indian reservation, and its intent to do so must be clear. The 1882 Act had none of the common textual indications that express clear intent, but falls into a category of surplus land acts that “merely opened reservation land to settlement.” Although the Tribe has been absent from the disputed territory for more than 120 years, the Court stated that subsequent demographic history is the “least compelling” evidence; the justifiable expectations of non-Indians living on the land cannot alone diminish reservation boundaries. View "Nebraska v. Parker" on Justia Law

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The Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin contracted with the Indian Health Service (IHS) to operate what would otherwise have been a federal program, pursuant to the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDA), 25 U.S.C. 450f, 450j–1(a). After other tribes successfully litigated complaints against the government for failing to honor its obligation to pay contract support costs, the Menominee Tribe presented its own claims to the IHS under the Contract Disputes Act. The contracting officer denied some claims as not presented within the CDA’s 6-year limitations period. The Tribe argued that the limitations period should be tolled for the two years in which a putative class action, brought by tribes with parallel complaints, was pending. The district court denied the equitable-tolling claim. The Court of Appeals and Supreme Court affirmed, holding that no extraordinary circumstances caused the delay. To be entitled to equitable tolling of a statute of limitations, a litigant must establish both that he has been pursuing his rights diligently and that some extraordinary circumstances prevented timely filing. The Court rejected the Tribe’s argument that diligence and extraordinary circumstances should be considered together as factors in a unitary test. The “extraordinary circumstances” prong is met only where the circumstances that caused the delay are both extraordinary and beyond the litigant’s control. The Tribe had unilateral authority to present its claims in a timely manner. Any significant risk and expense associated with litigating its claims were far from extraordinary. View "Menominee Tribe of Wis. v. United States" on Justia Law

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The State of Michigan entered into a compact with the Bay Mills Indian Community pursuant to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), 25 U.S.C. 2710(d)(1)(C). The compact authorizes Bay Mills to conduct class III gaming activities (a casino) on Indian lands within the state, but prohibits it from doing so outside that territory. Bay Mills opened a second casino on land it had purchased through a congressionally established land trust. The Tribe claimed it could operate a casino there because the property qualified as Indian land. Michigan sued under section 2710(d)(7)(A)(ii), which allows a state to enjoin gaming activity conducted in violation of any tribal-state compact. The district court granted the injunction, but the Sixth Circuit vacated, holding that tribal sovereign immunity barred the suit unless Congress provided otherwise; section 2710(d)(7)(A)(ii) only authorized suits to enjoin gaming activity located “on Indian lands,” while the complaint alleged the casino was outside such territory. The Supreme Court affirmed. As “domestic dependent nations,” Indian tribes exercise “inherent sovereign authority” that is subject to plenary control by Congress; unless Congress acts, the tribes retain their historic sovereign authority. Among the core aspects of that sovereignty is “common-law immunity from suit traditionally enjoyed by sovereign powers,” which applies whether a suit is brought by a state or arises from a tribe’s commercial activities off Indian lands. IGRA’s plain terms do not authorize this suit. Section 2710(d)(7)(A)(ii) partially abrogates tribal immunity with respect to class III gaming located “on Indian lands,” but the premise of Michigan’s suit is that Bay Mills’ casino is unlawful because it is outside Indian lands. Michigan argues that the casino is licensed and operated from within the reservation and that such administrative action constitutes “class III gaming activity.” IGRA’s provisions and history indicate that “class III gaming activity” refers to the gambling that goes on in a casino, not the offsite licensing of such games. View "Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Cmty" on Justia Law