Justia Native American Law Opinion Summaries

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Plaintiffs filed suit challenging the Governor's authority to concur in the decision of the United States Secretary of the Interior to take 305 acres of land in Madera County into trust for North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians for the purpose of operating a casino. The trial court sustained demurrers by North Fork and the state defendants. In 2016, the Court of Appeal reversed the judgment of dismissal, concluding the Governor lacked the authority to concur in the Interior Secretary's determination to take the Madera site into trust. The California Supreme Court granted review and held this case pending its decision in United Auburn Indian Community of Auburn Rancheria v. Newsom (2020) 10 Cal.5th 538. The Supreme Court transferred this case back to this court after deciding that California law empowers the Governor to concur. The Supreme Court directed this court to vacate its decision and to reconsider the matter in light of United Auburn.The Court of Appeal concluded that the facts of this case are distinguishable from those in United Auburn because at the November 2014 general election California voters rejected the Legislature's ratification of the tribal-state compact for gaming at the Madera site. The court concluded that the people retained the power to annul a concurrence by the Governor and the voters exercised this retained power at the 2014 election by impliedly revoking the concurrence for the Madera site. Consequently, the concurrence is no longer valid, and the demurrer should have been overruled. Accordingly, the court reversed the judgment of dismissal and directed the trial court to vacate its order sustaining the demurrers and enter a new order overruling them. View "Stand Up for California! v. California" on Justia Law

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Defendant Paddy Platero pleaded guilty to a charge of “[a]busive sexual contact” with a child under 12 in Indian country. In computing Defendant’s guideline sentencing range, the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico increased his base offense level on the ground that “the offense involved conduct described in 18 U.S.C. [section] 2241(a) or (b).” Defendant read the guideline as requiring a violation of section 2241(a) or (b). Section 2241 defined the offense of aggravated sexual abuse, not the lesser offense of abusive sexual contact of which Defendant was convicted. Defendant therefore appealed his sentence, contending that his base offense level should not have been increased. The Tenth Circuit rejected Defendant’s reading of Guideline 2A3.4(a)(1): “In context, the only reasonable interpretation of the guideline is that the reference to “conduct described in 18 U.S.C. 2241(a) or (b)” is a reference to the conduct described in [section] 2241 that distinguishes aggravated sexual abuse, which is governed by that section, from sexual abuse in general, which is governed by [section] 2242. Defendant’s interpretation of USSG 2A3.4(a)(1) must be avoided because it would eliminate any possible application of the provision, rendering it useless; and our interpretation finds support in both the history of 2A3.4(a)(1) and the statutory scheme, which sets penalties for the various types of abusive sexual contact set forth in section 2244 by reference to the conduct that distinguishes from one another the various types of sexual abuse prohibited by [sections] 2241, 2242, and 2243 – that is, by reference to the various means employed to commit sexual abuse.” View "United States v. Platero" on Justia Law

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On May 15, 1915, the State of Washington charged Alec Towessnute, a Yakama tribal member, with multiple fishing crimes. These criminal charges stemmed from the fact that he was fishing in the usual and accustomed waters of the Yakama tribe the day before without a state-issued fishing license using an unpermitted fishing hook. The parties stipulated that the United States had entered into a treaty with the Yakama Nation on June 9, 1855 (ratified by the United States Senate on March 8, 1859), and that the area where Mr. Towessnute fished “has been used and enjoyed by said Indians during the fishing season of each and every year since said treaty was made; that said fishing place has from time immemorial been used and enjoyed by said Indians and their ancestors and known by the Indian name of ‘Top-tut’.” Mr. Towessnute objected to the charges. Relying on the stipulation, he explained that Benton County had no jurisdiction over the matter because he had committed no crime by exercising his treaty fishing rights. The trial court judge agreed: on June 10, 1915, Benton County Superior Court entered a final judgment in the matter, dismissing all the charges against Mr. Towessnute. The 1916 Washington Supreme Court reversed, mandating that the criminal charges be reinstated, overruling Mr. Towessnute’s objections. In 2015, the descendants of Mr. Towessnute sought vacation of any record of conviction against Mr. Towessnute. Given that such a conviction could not be proved by the record, the trial court declined to take any action. Under the Rules of Appellate Procedure (RAP) 1.2(c), the 2021 Washington Supreme Court acted to waive any of the RAP “to serve the ends of justice.” The mandate issued by the Washington Supreme Court in 1916 was recalled and any conviction existing then or now against Mr. Towessnute was vacated. View "Washington v. Towessnute" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's dismissal, based on lack of jurisdiction, of Navajo Nation's breach of trust claim alleging that Federal Appellees failed to consider the Nation's as-yet-undetermined water rights in managing the Colorado River. Several states intervened to protect their interests in the Colorado's waters.The panel concluded that the district court erred in dismissing the complaint because, in contrast to the district court's determination, the amendment was not futile. The panel explained that, although the Supreme Court retained original jurisdiction over water rights claims to the Colorado River in Arizona I, the Nation's complaint does not seek a judicial quantification of rights to the River, so the panel need not decide whether the Supreme Court's retained jurisdiction is exclusive. Furthermore, contrary to the Intervenors' arguments on appeal, the Nation's claim is not barred by res judicata, despite the federal government's representation of the Nation in Arizona I. Finally, the panel concluded that the district court erred in denying the Nation's motion to amend and in dismissing the Nation's complaint. In this case, the complaint properly stated a breach of trust claim premised on the Nation's treaties with the United States and the Nation's federally reserved Winters rights, especially when considered along with the Federal Appellees' pervasive control over the Colorado River. Accordingly, the panel remanded with instructions to permit the Nation to amend its complaint. View "Navajo Nation v. U.S. Department of the Interior" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the order of the trial court terminating Respondents' parental rights to their child, holding that the trial court impermissibly failed to comply with the Indian Child Welfare Act.After a hearing, the trial court entered an order in which it determined that grounds existed to terminate Respondents' parental rights and concluded that termination of Respondents' parental rights was in the child's best interests. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case to the trial court to conduct a new hearing on termination of Respondents' parental rights, holding that the trial court did not comply with 25 C.F.R. 23.107(a) and therefore could not determine whether it had reason to know that the child was an Indian child. View "In re M.L.B." on Justia Law

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The juvenile court asserted emergency jurisdiction over seven-year-old A.T., whose mentally ill mother had taken him from Washington state to California in violation of Washington family court orders. The court detained A.T., placed him temporarily with his father in Washington, and initiated contact with the Washington family court to address which state had jurisdiction under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). In the meantime, the Wiyot Tribe intervened and, with A.T.’s mother asserted Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) required the court to retain jurisdiction in California.The juvenile court determined ICWA was inapplicable and that the Washington family court had continuing exclusive jurisdiction and dismissed the dependency action in favor of the family court proceedings in Washington. The court of appeal affirmed. The juvenile court properly applied the UCCJEA and dismissed the dependency action in favor of family court proceedings in Washington state after finding ICWA inapplicable because the child had been placed with his non-offending parent. ICWA and the related California statutory scheme expressly focus on the removal of Indian children from their homes and parents and placement in foster or adoptive homes. View "In re A.T." on Justia Law

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Wilton Rancheria, a Sacramento area Indian tribe, was federally recognized in 1927. The 1958 Rancheria Act disestablished Wilton and 40 other reservations. In 1979, several California rancherias, including Wilton, sued. The government agreed to restore Indian status. Wilton was erroneously excluded from the settlement. In 2009, the Department of the Interior restored Wilton’s federal recognition and agreed to “accept in trust certain lands formerly belonging to” Wilton. Wilton petitioned to acquire 282 acres near Galt for a casino. A draft environmental impact statement (EIS), under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 42 U.S.C. 4321–4347, identified alternatives, including a 30-acre Elk Grove parcel. Wilton changed its preference and requested that the Department acquire the Elk Grove location. Objectors responded that acquiring the Elk Grove location would moot pending state-court suits.The Department’s final EIS identified the Elk Grove location as the preferred alternative. The Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary– Indian Affairs, Roberts, signed the Record of Decision (ROD) pursuant to delegated authority. Roberts had served as Acting Assistant Secretary– Indian Affairs (AS–IA), but after his acting status lapsed under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, Roberts continued to exercise the non-exclusive AS–IA functions. Black, who became Acting AS–IA in the new administration, signed off on the acquisition.Objectors filed suit before the issuance of the Department’s ROD and unsuccessfully sought a temporary restraining order. The D.C. Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the Department, rejecting claims that the Department impermissibly delegated the authority to make a final agency action to acquire the land to an official who could not wield this authority, was barred from acquiring land in trust on behalf of Wilton’s members, and failed to comply with NEPA. View "Stand Up For California! v. United States Department of the Interior" on Justia Law

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After the Indian Health Service agreed to pay the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community to run a health program on the Swinomish Reservation, Swinomish filed suit under the Contract Disputes Act and Declaratory Judgment Act, claiming that it was owed additional sums in direct and indirect contract support for costs calculated as percentages of the money it received from insurers and spent on health services. The DC Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of the government's motion for summary judgment, holding that the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act does not require Indian Health Service to pay for contract support costs on insurance money received by Swinomish. Neither does Swinomish's contract with Indian Health Service. View "Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Becerra" on Justia Law

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In this case, the en banc court considered the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), 25 U.S.C. 1901 et seq., and the validity of implementing regulations promulgated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in its 2016 Final Rule (Final Rule). The district court granted plaintiffs summary judgment in part, declaring that the ICWA and the Final Rule contravene multiple constitutional provisions and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). After defendants appealed, a panel of this court reversed and rendered judgment for defendants. The en banc court then reconsidered the case.The en banc court unanimously held that at least one plaintiff has standing to challenge Congress's authority under Article I of the Constitution to enact ICWA and to press anticommandeering and nondelegation challenges to specific ICWA provisions, and that plaintiffs have standing to challenge the Final Rule as unlawful under the APA. The en banc court is equally divided as to whether plaintiffs have standing to challenge two provisions of ICWA, 25 U.S.C. 1913 and 1914, on equal protection grounds, and the district court's conclusion that plaintiffs can assert this claim is therefore affirmed without a precedential opinion. An en banc majority also held that plaintiffs have standing to assert their equal protection challenges to other provisions of ICWA.On the merits, the en banc majority agrees that, as a general proposition, Congress had the authority to enact ICWA under Article I of the Constitution, and that the ICWA's "Indian child" classification does not violate equal protection. The en banc court is equally divided, however, as to whether plaintiffs prevail on their equal protection challenge to ICWA's adoptive placement preference for "other Indian families," and its foster care placement preference for a licensed "Indian foster home." An en banc majority held that ICWA's "active efforts," section 1912(d), expert witness, section 1912(e) and (f), and recordkeeping requirements, section 1915(e), unconstitutionally commandeer state actors. However, the en banc court is equally divided on whether the placement preferences, section 1915(a)–(b), violate anticommandeering to the extent they direct action by state agencies and officials; on whether the notice provision, section 1912(a), unconstitutionally commandeers state agencies; and on whether the placement record provision, section 1951(a), unconstitutionally commandeers state courts.Furthermore, an en banc majority held that several challenged ICWA provisions validly preempt state law and so do not commandeer states, and that section 1915(c) does not violate the non-delegation doctrine. Finally, an en banc majority held that the BIA did not violate the APA by concluding in the Final Rule that it may issue regulations binding on state courts. However, an en banc majority also held that the Final Rule violated the APA to the extent it implemented these unconstitutional provisions and that 25 C.F.R. 23.132(b) violated the APA. An en banc majority held that the Final Rule did not violate the APA in any other respect. Accordingly, the en banc court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and rendered judgment accordingly. View "Brackeen v. Haaland" on Justia Law

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The Alaska Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took custody of three Indian children after reports of substance abuse and domestic violence in their mother’s home. For two years OCS was unable to contact the children’s father, who also struggled with substance abuse issues. Once OCS did contact the father, both he and the mother consented to temporarily place the children with a guardian. OCS then reduced its efforts to reunify the children with their father. Then the children’s mother died. The father was incarcerated for several months; he completed classes and substance abuse treatment. After he was released, he maintained his sobriety and began limited contact with OCS and with his children. Approximately four years after taking custody of the children, OCS moved to terminate the father’s parental rights. After the superior court terminated his rights, the father appealed, arguing OCS failed to make active efforts to reunify him with his children as required by ICWA. To this the Alaska Supreme Court concurred, and reversed the termination of his parental rights. View "C.J. (Father) v. Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law