Justia Native American Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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The case involves Douglas Smith, a non-Indian, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for an act he committed on his property located within the exterior boundaries of the Pueblo of Santa Clara. Smith shot and killed Maria Gallegos, who he saw trying to break into a trailer on his property. Prior to trial, Smith moved to dismiss the case for lack of federal jurisdiction, arguing that the federal district court lacked criminal jurisdiction over crimes committed on his property and that Congress acted outside its constitutional authority when it passed the Indian Pueblo Land Act Amendments of 2005. The district court denied his motion.Smith's case was appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. The appellate court had to decide whether federal criminal jurisdiction extends to land owned by a non-Indian within the exterior boundaries of a Pueblo. The court affirmed the district court's decision, concluding that Smith's property is Indian country under 18 U.S.C. § 1151, and therefore, his crime is subject to federal criminal jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. § 1152.Smith also claimed that the 2005 Amendment is unconstitutional as applied to him. The court disagreed, holding that the 2005 Amendment did not unconstitutionally extend federal criminal jurisdiction to Smith's land. The court reasoned that the 2005 Amendment only exercised preexisting federal jurisdiction over Smith's land and was thus not an unconstitutional enactment as applied to Smith.Lastly, Smith contended that the district court erred in declining his request for a two-level sentence reduction for accepting responsibility for his crime. The appellate court found no clear error in the district court's determination, noting that Smith had challenged the factual element of intent at trial, which provided a clear basis to conclude that he did not accept responsibility. The court affirmed the district court's decision. View "United States v. Smith" on Justia Law

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The Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation brought a suit against the United States, alleging various claims concerning water rights and water-related infrastructure. The Tribe claimed that the United States breached duties of trust by mismanaging water rights and infrastructure held by the United States and operated for the Tribe, breached contracts with the Tribe, and effected unconstitutional takings of the Tribe’s property. The Claims Court dismissed all the breach of trust claims, held that one breach of contract claim was barred by a 2012 settlement agreement, and found the remaining breach of contract and takings claims time barred.The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed in part and vacated and remanded in part the Claims Court's decision. The Court of Appeals held that the Winters doctrine and the 1899 Act did not sufficiently establish trust duties to support Indian Tucker Act jurisdiction with respect to the Tribe’s claims that the United States has a duty to construct new infrastructure and secure new water for the Tribe. However, the Court found that the 1906 Act imposes trust duties on the United States sufficient to support a claim at least with respect to management of existing water infrastructure. The Court also affirmed the dismissal of one breach of contract claim, vacated and remanded another, and affirmed the dismissal of the takings claims. View "UTE INDIAN TRIBE OF THE UINTAH & OURAY INDIAN RESERVATION v. US" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court of the State of Oklahoma reviewed the termination of parental rights of Victoria Rodriguez and Everardo Rodriguez, Sr., parents of four children who were adjudicated deprived. The children were removed from their parents' custody following allegations of severe sexual abuse against the eldest daughter, M.R., by her father over a two-year period, and the mother's failure to protect the children from this abuse.The District Court of Oklahoma County terminated the parents' rights after a jury trial. Both parents appealed separately, and their appeals were considered together in this opinion. The mother argued that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was unconstitutional as it denied her equal protection under the law. However, the court found that she lacked standing to challenge the constitutionality of ICWA. The court also held that the trial court did not violate her right to equal protection under the law by failing to apply a heightened burden of proof under ICWA.The father argued that the trial court erred by not making certain required findings under federal and state law and by granting the State's Motion in Limine. The court found that the trial court did not err in these respects. The court affirmed the trial court's orders terminating the parental rights of both parents. View "In the Matter of M.R." on Justia Law

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Two members of the Lipan-Apache Native American Church, Gary Perez and Matilde Torres, sued the City of San Antonio over its development plan for Brackenridge Park. They claimed that the plan, which involved tree removal and bird deterrence measures, would prevent them from performing religious ceremonies in the park, violating their rights under the First Amendment, the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Texas Constitution. They sought an injunction requiring the city to grant them access to the park for worship, minimize tree removal, and allow cormorants to nest.The district court granted them access to the park for religious ceremonies but declined to enjoin the city's planned tree removal and bird deterrence measures. Both parties appealed this decision.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that the city's development plan did not substantially burden the appellants' religious exercise. The court also found that the city's plan served two compelling interests: public health and safety, and compliance with federal law. The court concluded that the city's tree removal and bird deterrence plans were the least restrictive means to advance these interests. Therefore, the appellants failed to show a likelihood of success on the merits of their claims. The court also denied the appellants' emergency motion for an injunction pending appeal. View "Perez v. City of San Antonio" on Justia Law

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This case, decided by the Supreme Court of the State of Oklahoma, involved a dispute between the Governor of Oklahoma and the state's legislative leaders. The Governor sought a declaration that the legislative leaders did not have the authority to pass two bills related to Tribal compacts on behalf of the state.The case has its roots in previous US Supreme Court decisions that allowed Oklahoma to tax tobacco products sold on Indian lands to non-tribal members and to enter into agreements with tribal nations regarding these taxes. Following these decisions, Oklahoma's governor negotiated and entered into compacts with tribal nations regarding excise taxes on tobacco products and motor vehicle licensing and registration fees.The current dispute revolves around compacts negotiated in 2013. The Governor argued that the legislature lacked the authority to pass two bills extending the expiration of these compacts, alleging that the bills were the product of an unlawful concurrent special legislative session, that they violated the separation of powers by exercising powers that belong to the Executive branch, and that they contradicted his exclusive authority to negotiate state-tribal compacts.The court held that the legislature had the constitutional authority to consider the bills during a concurrent special session, and that the legislation did not exceed the call of the special session. The court also held that the Governor's authority to negotiate state-tribal compacts is statutory, not constitutional, and that the passage of the bills was not an infringement on the Governor's statutory authority to negotiate and enter into state-tribal compacts. Therefore, the court denied the Governor's request for declaratory relief. View "Stitt v. Treat" on Justia Law

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In this appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, the defendant, Paul Curtis Pemberton, contested his federal conviction for a murder committed in McIntosh County, Oklahoma in 2004. The case was influenced by the Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma (2020), which confirmed that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Reservation covered a larger area of eastern Oklahoma than previously acknowledged by state and federal governments. This ruling impacted many crimes that had been prosecuted in state courts but were actually committed within tribal jurisdictions. Pemberton, an enrolled member of the Creek Nation, argued that his crime fell within this category and should have been prosecuted in federal court under the Major Crimes Act.The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision, ruling that the state officers involved in Pemberton’s arrest and the subsequent collection of evidence had acted in good faith, based on the prevailing legal understanding at the time. The court noted that the officers could not have known that the Major Crimes Act barred state jurisdiction over the crime as the reservation boundaries were not clarified until the McGirt decision in 2020.The court also rejected Pemberton’s argument that the district court violated his Sixth Amendment right to self-representation during his sentencing. The court found that Pemberton's request to represent himself was made with the intention to delay the proceedings and was not related to the sentencing hearing. Therefore, the lower court's decision to deny his request was affirmed. View "United States v. Pemberton" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the United States in a dispute over the planned transfer of a site, Oak Flat, of spiritual importance to the Apache tribe to a mining company, Resolution Copper. The nonprofit Apache Stronghold had sought to block the transfer, arguing that it would infrely violate its members’ rights under the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("RFRA"), and an 1852 treaty between the U.S. and the Apaches. The court, however, disagreed.Applying the precedent set in Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, the court held that while the transfer of Oak Flat would significantly interfere with the Apache tribe's religious practices, it would not coerce them into acting contrary to their religious beliefs, and therefore did not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.Further, the court held that RFRA did not abrogate the holding in Lyng, and thus the planned land transfer did not "substantially burden" the Apache tribe's exercise of religion under RFRA.Finally, the court rejected the argument that an 1852 treaty created a trust obligation that would be violated by the transfer of Oak Flat. It interpreted the Land Transfer Act as abrogating any contrary treaty obligation. Consequently, the court held that Apache Stronghold was unlikely to succeed on the merits of any of its claims and therefore was not entitled to a preliminary injunction blocking the land transfer. View "Apache Stronghold v. United States" on Justia Law

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In the case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, the defendant, Donavan Jay White Owl, appealed an order of the district court denying his motion to dismiss an indictment based on the Double Jeopardy Clause. White Owl had been indicted for felony murder and arson within Indian Country. A mistrial was declared during the initial trial after a dispute over White Owl’s access to information about a prosecution witness. White Owl argued that a new trial would violate his rights under the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Constitution.The Appeals Court, however, ruled that White Owl had impliedly consented to the mistrial. The court noted that while the defendant did not expressly request a mistrial, his actions and responses during the proceedings indicated his implicit agreement. Specifically, when the district court declared its intention to declare a mistrial and asked the parties for their views, White Owl did not object but instead emphasized the need for more time to prepare for cross-examination of a prosecution witness.In light of this, the court concluded that White Owl's lack of objection amounted to implied consent to a mistrial. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's order denying White Owl's motion to dismiss the indictment based on the Double Jeopardy Clause. View "United States v. Donavan White Owl" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska challenged the State of Alaska's management of a commercial fishery, arguing that it harmed a subsistence fishery. The tribe argued that the state violated the subsistence priority statute and the common use and sustained yield clauses in the Alaska Constitution. The tribe also claimed that the state was misinterpreting a regulation controlling the fishery and sought a preliminary injunction to prevent the state from managing the fishery according to that interpretation during the upcoming season. The superior court denied the preliminary injunction.The tribe eventually won on its statutory and regulatory claim, but the superior court denied its constitutional claim and its request for attorney’s fees. The tribe appealed to the Supreme Court of Alaska.The Supreme Court of Alaska affirmed the superior court’s decisions. It held that the hard look doctrine, requiring agencies to consider all relevant information, already existed and there was no need to create a constitutional requirement not in the plain language of Article VIII, Section 4 of the Alaska Constitution. The court also declined to review the tribe’s motion for a preliminary injunction under the public interest exception, as the issue was moot and did not justify application of the public interest exception. Lastly, the court held that the superior court did not abuse its discretion by declining to award attorney’s fees as the tribe had not shown that the superior court's decision was arbitrary, capricious, manifestly unreasonable, or stemmed from an improper motive. View "Sitka Tribe of Alaska v. State of Alaska" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs sued the Arkansas Division of Corrections (ADC), alleging its policies violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). After a bench trial, the district court dismissed the complaint. It found that their religious beliefs were not sincerely held; that even if they were sincerely held, the policies did not substantially burden those beliefs; and that even if there was a substantial burden, the policies were the least restrictive means to further ADC’s compelling interests. Plaintiffs appealed.   The Eighth Circuit vacated the judgment and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings. The court explained that the district court found that ADC lacks the staff and space for separate Jumu’ah services. But Plaintiffs proposed alternatives, including utilizing other available spaces, partitioning the same space, and scheduling two Jumu’ah services in the same space at different times. The district court neither addressed these proposed alternatives to determine whether they were available or would effectively address ADC’s compelling security interests nor addressed whether the prison’s reasons for refusing to offer an accommodation were persuasive in light of the evidence that other prisons are able to do so. Correctly applying the governing law to Plaintiffs’ challenge requires that the court do so. Further, the court wrote that the district court also found that ADC’s religious headdress policy did not substantially burden Plaintiffs’ beliefs because ADC informally allows them to wear kufis in violation of the policy. But even if ADC does not enforce it consistently, the policy expressly prohibits Plaintiffs from wearing their kufis except during religious services. View "Gregory Holt v. Dexter Payne" on Justia Law