Friday, July 25, 2008

A Congressional Remedy for Oliphant?

Thirty years ago the Supreme Court ruled in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, 435 U.S. 191, 98 S.Ct. 1011, 55 L.Ed.2d 209 (1978) essentially that Native Nations had no jurisdiction over non-Indians who committed crimes on tribal land. Justice Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion which held that Indian tribal courts do not have inherent criminal jurisdiction to try and to punish non-Indians, and hence may not assume such jurisdiction unless specifically authorized to do so by Congress.

This decision arguably left a jurisdictional gap that in many cases has not been adequately filled. Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held hearings on a bill designed to give Native American courts and law enforcement broader authority to combat violent and sex-related crimes. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and 12 co-sponsors introduced the Tribal Law and Order Act on Wednesday. Joining Dorgan as co-sponsors to this legislation are Senators Murkowski, Biden, Domenici, Baucus, Bingaman, Lieberman, Kyl, Johnson, Smith, Cantwell, Thune, Tester.

If passed, the bill would give American Indian courts authority to impose stricter sentences, expand the courts' jurisdiction to cover more non-Indian suspects, and provide for additional law enforcement training and federal cooperation in addressing the crimes.

In a prepared statement for the hearing, National American Indian Court Judges Association Vice President Roman Duran (Tesuque/Hopi) commented:

"Tribal courts agonize over the very same issues state and federal courts confront in the criminal context, such as, assault and battery, predatory crimes, hate crimes, child sexual abuse, alcohol and substance abuse, gang violence, violence against women, and now methamphetamine along with the social ills that are left in its wake. These courts, however, while striving to address these complex issues with far fewer financial resources than their federal and state counterparts must also 'strive to respond competently and creatively to federal and state pressures coming from the outside, and to cultural values and imperatives from within.' ... Judicial training that addresses the present imperatives posed by the public safety crisis in Indian Country, while also being culturally sensitive, is essential for tribal courts to be effective in deterring crime in their communities."

Jurisdictional Variation in American Indian Criminal Justice: An Argument for Stronger Understanding and Better Methods

Amnesty International Report: MAZE OF INJUSTICE - The failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA

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