Quinault Indian Nation officials are celebrating a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision Monday that will make things tougher on men who are habitually violent against women.
The decision stems from a Montana case, United States v. Bryant, and confirms that tribal court misdemeanor convictions made without counsel in domestic violence cases can be used in federal and state court to establish repeat defenders.
“We deeply appreciate this confirmation of tribal legal rights and jurisdiction,” said Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation. “People need to know that tribal governments consider the issue of violence against women or anyone else on our reservations a top priority issue.
”Over the years, our Indian women have suffered 10 times the overall murder rate. More than one-third of our tribal women have been raped. It is critically important for tribes to have the unquestioned authority to make arrests and conduct the prosecutions necessary to stop these egregious injustices, whether they are perpetrated by tribal members or not,“ she said, adding that most such crimes and misdemeanors are committed by non-Indian men against Indian women on reservations.
The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in March of 2013 included tribal language that enabled tribal courts to prosecute crimes against women, including domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking. The new law provided protections for gays and lesbians as well as Native American women on tribal lands who are attacked or abused by non-tribal residents.
The Bryant case began in 2011 when defendant Michael Bryant Jr. was convicted for assaults on two women. Bryant had pleaded guilty to charges of domestic abuse in at least five previous cases in tribal court. Based on his extensive criminal tribal court record, he was found eligible by the U.S. Attorney for “habitual offender“ status and was indicted in federal district court on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana. After he was sentenced to 46 months on each count in federal prison, he appealed to the Ninth Circuit to have his federal indictment dismissed on the grounds that, in essence, his tribal court convictions should not be counted against him because he entered his pleas without a lawyer. Bryant also argued that using his prior misdemeanor convictions to prove habitual offender status under VAWA violated the Fifth and Sixth Amendments under the U.S. Constitution.
In September 2014, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland, agreed with Bryant and reversed the indictment.
The U.S. Department of Justice appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in April. Making the U.S. government’s case, Elizabeth Prelogar, assistant to the Solicitor General, said, “I think it is important to recognize that (Bryant) had it entirely within his power to not have a Federal court consider these prior tribal court convictions. If he didn’t want that to occur, then what he should have done is stop abusing his domestic partners. But because he didn’t learn from those prior tribal convictions, because he kept battering women in Indian Country and contributed to that epidemic of domestic violence, I don’t think he should be heard to complain that he’s being prosecuted under (the law).
“Arguing that tribal court convictions should be treated as if they don’t exist for the purposes of prosecution under federal law, Bryant would have a negative impact on tribal courts seeking to protect Native women from repeat offenders and escalating violence. As tribal courts have continued to improve their justice systems in recent years Congress has accordingly expanded their authority in regards to the jurisdiction they possess to prosecute crimes on their lands,” said Prelogar.
Monday’s ruling stated that there was no denial of due process in the Bryant case, no violation of the defendant’s rights and no denial of the right to counsel. The Supreme Court ruling also concurred with the Justice Department’s arguments that under ICRA defendants have the right to hire their own attorneys in tribal court but are not guaranteed that one will be retained by the court for them. “We have long held, the Bill of Rights, including the Sixth Amendment, does not govern tribal-court proceedings,” said Justice Ruth Ginsburg.
“Tribes have the authority to make arrests and prosecute anyone who commits these crimes on their reservations and we intend to use it. All of our people are precious to us. Our elders, our children, our men and our women. We will not tolerate this kind of abuse. The nightmare is still not over, but this is a major step in the right direction,” Sharp said.
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