Opinion: The Supreme Court's Recent Ruling States that Tribes Are Not Considered Sovereign Nations. That's a Problem.

Daniella Cressman
"A U.S. Supreme Court ruling expanding state authority to prosecute some crimes on Native American land is fracturing decades of law built around the hard-fought principle that tribes have the right to govern themselves on their own territory, legal experts say." —Pelicia Fonseca and Lindsay Whitehurst

The Supreme Court's recent ruling means that Native American tribes are not seen as sovereign nations, which has infuriated many tribes across the country.

Before this week's ruling, states only had the power to prosecute non-Natives on reservations. Now that has changed.

"A U.S. Supreme Court ruling expanding state authority to prosecute some crimes on Native American land is fracturing decades of law built around the hard-fought principle that tribes have the right to govern themselves on their own territory, legal experts say. The Wednesday ruling is a marked departure from federal Indian law and veers from the push to increase tribes’ ability to prosecute all crimes on reservations — regardless of who is involved. It also cast tribes as part of states, rather than the sovereign nations they are, infuriating many across Indian Country." —Pelicia Fonseca and Lindsay Whitehurst

To be frank, the prosecution of crimes that took place on Native American reservations was already a tangled web of corruption.

"Federal authorities have long been criticized for declining to prosecute cases in Indian Country — roughly a third, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Authorities in PL-280 states also have been criticized for a lack of response to crime in Indian Country, where law enforcement officers often must travel long distances to investigate reported crimes. Tribes asserted that the federal government — with which they have a political relationship — is the appropriate sovereign entity to handle criminal matters. Congress maintains control over Native American and Alaska Native affairs, which are overseen by the Department of Interior. States have no such obligation to tribes." —Pelicia Fonseca and Lindsay Whitehurst

In short, this ruling means that states have more power and tribes have less power. Too often, resources on Native American reservations are already scarce.

"While the Supreme Court ruling is an expansion of power for states, it doesn’t come with a similar increase for tribes. A 1978 ruling stripped tribes of any criminal jurisdiction over non-Natives on their reservations. The reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013 restored some of that authority in limited domestic violence cases and further expanded it earlier this year. Less than 1% of federally recognized tribes in the U.S. have implemented that authority. It raises the possibility of tribes, the state and the feds prosecuting a suspect for the same offense. Another U.S. Supreme Court ruling issued last month said tribal members prosecuted in certain tribal courts also can be prosecuted based on the same incident in federal court. Most tribes can sentence convicted offenders to only a year in jail, regardless of the crime. A 2010 federal law increased tribes’ sentencing authority to three years for a single crime. Few tribes have met the federal requirements to use that authority, including having public defenders and law-trained judges." —Pelicia Fonseca and Lindsay Whitehurst

There are two sides of this argument when it comes to victims of crime, legal repercussions, perpetrators. That being said, reservations—which are home to Native American tribes—should be recognized as sovereign nations, especially when one considers the oppressive history of our country.

Stating that the Native American tribes are not sovereign nations is, arguably a breach of a Treaty that has been established for quite some time with the Native Americans. lawyer who is well-versed in treaties ought to take a look at the problematic nature of this ruling.

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Canadian-American author writing about local politics, personal finance, & dining in Albuquerque.

Albuquerque, NM
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