Justia Native American Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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Title V of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act allocates $8 billion to “Tribal governments” to compensate for unbudgeted expenditures made in response to COVID–19, 42 U.S.C. 801(a)(2)(B). A “Tribal government” is the “recognized governing body of an Indian tribe” as defined in the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDA), which refers to “any Indian tribe, band, nation, or other organized group or community, including any Alaska Native village or regional or village corporation as defined in or established pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which is recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians.” 25 U.S.C. 5304(e).Consistent with the Department of the Interior’s view that Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) are Indian tribes under ISDA, the Department of the Treasury determined that ANCs are eligible for Title V relief, although ANCs are not “federally recognized tribes” (i.e., tribes with which the United States has entered into a government-to-government relationship). Federally recognized tribes sued. The D.C. Circuit reinstated the suit following summary judgment.The Supreme Court reversed. ANCs are “Indian tribe[s]” under ISDA and eligible for funding under Title V.. ANCs are “established pursuant to” ANCSA and “recognized as eligible” for that Act’s benefits. ANCSA, which made ANCs eligible to select tens of millions of acres of land and receive hundreds of millions of tax-exempt dollars, 43 U.S.C. 1605, 1610, 1611, is a special program provided by the United States to “Indians.” Given that ANCSA is the only statute ISDA’s “Indian tribe” definition mentions by name, eligibility for ANCSA’s benefits satisfies the definition’s “recognized-as-eligible” clause. The Court noted that even if ANCs did not satisfy the recognized-as-eligible clause, they would still satisfy ISDA’s definition of an “Indian tribe.” View "Yellen v. Confederated Tribes of Chehalis Reservation" on Justia Law

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Crow Police Officer Saylor approached a truck parked on U.S. Highway 212, a public right-of-way within the Crow Reservation in Montana. Saylor observed that the driver, Cooley, appeared to be non-native and had watery, bloodshot eyes. Saylor saw two semi-automatic rifles, a glass pipe, and a plastic bag that contained methamphetamine. Additional officers, including an officer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, arrived. Saylor was directed to seize all contraband in plain view, leading Saylor to discover more methamphetamine. Cooley, charged with drug and gun offenses, successfully moved to suppress the drug evidence. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.The Supreme Court vacated. Tribal police officers have authority to detain temporarily and to search non-Indian persons traveling on public rights-of-way running through a reservation for potential violations of state or federal law; they are not required to first determine whether a suspect is non-Indian and, if so, to temporarily detain a non-Indian only for “apparent” legal violations. Generally, the inherent sovereign powers of an Indian tribe do not extend to the activities of nonmembers of the tribe, but a tribe retains inherent authority over the conduct of non-Indians on the reservation when that conduct threatens or has some direct effect on the health or welfare of the tribe. When the jurisdiction to try and punish an offender rests outside the tribe, tribal officers may exercise their power to detain the offender and transport him to the proper authorities; the authority to search that individual before transport is ancillary to that authority. View "United States v. Cooley" on Justia Law

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The Major Crimes Act (MCA) provides that, within “the Indian country,” “[a]ny Indian who commits” certain enumerated offenses “shall be subject to the same law and penalties as all other persons committing any of [those] offenses, within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States,” 18 U.S.C. 1153(a). “Indian country” includes “all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government.” McGirt was convicted by an Oklahoma state court of sexual offenses. He unsuccessfully argued in state postconviction proceedings that the state lacked jurisdiction to prosecute him because he is an enrolled member of the Seminole Nation and his crimes took place on the Creek Reservation.The Supreme Court held that McGirt was entitled to a federal trial. For MCA purposes, land reserved for the Creek Nation since the 19th century remains “Indian country.” An 1856 Treaty promised that “no portion” of Creek lands “would ever be embraced or included within, or annexed to, any Territory or State,” 11 Stat. 700, and that the Creeks would have the “unrestricted right of self-government,” with “full jurisdiction” over enrolled Tribe members. Once a federal reservation is established, only Congress can diminish or disestablish it. Congress did not end the Creek Reservation during the “allotment era,” when Congress sought to pressure many tribes to abandon their communal lifestyles and parcel their lands into smaller lots owned by individual tribal members. Other limitations on the promised right to self-governance, including abolishing the Creeks’ tribal courts and requiring Presidential approval for certain tribal ordinances fell short of eliminating all tribal interest in the contested lands. Many of Oklahoma’s arguments rest “on state prosecutorial practices that defy the MCA, rather than on the law’s plain terms.” Acknowledging the potential consequences of its ruling, such as unsettling convictions and frustrating the state’s ability to prosecute future crimes, the Court stated that Oklahoma and its tribes have proven that they can work successfully together and Congress remains free to supplement its statutory directions about the lands. View "McGirt v. Oklahoma" on Justia Law

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An 1868 treaty between the United States and the Crow Tribe promised that in exchange for the Tribe’s territory in modern-day Montana and Wyoming, its members would “have the right to hunt on the unoccupied lands of the United States so long as game may be found thereon . . . and peace subsists,” 15 Stat. 650. In 2014, Wyoming charged Herrera with off-season hunting in Bighorn National Forest. The state court held that the treaty right expired upon Wyoming’s statehood and that, in any event, the national forest became categorically "occupied" when it was created.The Supreme Court vacated. Hunting rights under the Treaty did not expire upon Wyoming’s statehood. The crucial inquiry is whether Congress “clearly express[ed]” an intent to abrogate an Indian treaty right or whether a termination point identified in the treaty has been satisfied, The Wyoming Statehood Act does not clearly express an intent to end the Treaty's hunting right. There is no evidence in the Treaty that Congress intended the hunting right to expire at statehood, or that the Tribe would have understood it to do so. Bighorn National Forest did not become categorically “occupied” within the meaning of the Treaty when the national forest was created. Construing the treaty’s terms as “they would naturally be understood by the Indians,” the word “unoccupied” denoted an area free of residence or settlement by non-Indians. Nor would mining and logging of the forest lands before 1897 have caused the Tribe to view the Bighorn Mountains as occupied. The Court clarified that Bighorn National Forest is not categorically occupied, but that not all areas within the forest are necessarily unoccupied and did not address whether Wyoming could regulate the Treaty right “in the interest of conservation.” View "Herrera v. Wyoming" on Justia Law

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The State of Washington taxes “motor vehicle fuel importer[s]” who bring large quantities of fuel into the state by “ground transportation,” Wash. Code 82.36.010(4), (12), (16). Cougar, a wholesale fuel importer owned by a member of the Yakama Nation, imports fuel over Washington’s public highways for sale to Yakama-owned retail gas stations located within the reservation. In 2013, the state assessed Cougar $3.6 million in taxes, penalties, and licensing fees for importing motor vehicle fuel. Cougar argued that the tax, as applied to its activities, is preempted by an 1855 treaty between the United States and the Yakama Nation that reserves the Yakamas’ “right, in common with citizens of the United States, to travel upon all public highways,” 12 Stat. 953. The Washington Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. The statute taxes the importation of fuel, which is the transportation of fuel, so travel on public highways is directly at issue. In previous cases involving the treaty, the Court has stressed that its language should be understood as bearing the meaning that the Yakamas understood it to have in 1855; the historical record adopted by the agency and the courts below indicates that the treaty negotiations and the government’s representatives’ statements to the Yakamas would have led the Yakamas to understand that the treaty’s protection of the right to travel on the public highways included the right to travel with goods for purposes of trade. To impose a tax upon traveling with certain goods burdens that travel. View "Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Upper Skagit Indian Tribe purchased land and commissioned a boundary survey, which convinced the Tribe that about an acre of its land lay on the other side of a boundary fence between its land and land owned by the Lundgrens. The Lundgrens filed a quiet title action in Washington state court, arguing adverse possession and mutual acquiescence. The Washington Supreme Court rejected the Tribe’s sovereign immunity claim, reasoning that tribal sovereign immunity does not apply to in rem suits. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated and remanded. The precedent on which the state court relied (Yakima) addressed not the scope of tribal sovereign immunity, but a question of statutory interpretation of the Indian General Allotment Act of 1887. The Act authorized the President to allot parcels of reservation land to individual tribal members and directed the government to issue fee patents to the allottees. In 1934, Congress reversed course but did not withdraw the lands already conveyed so that Indian reservations sometimes contain both trust land held by the government and fee-patented land held by private parties. The Supreme Court held that the state collection of property taxes on fee-patented land within reservations was allowed under the Act; Yakima resolved nothing about the law of sovereign immunity. View "Upper Skagit Tribe v. Lundgren" on Justia Law

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Patchak filed suit challenging the authority of the Secretary of the Interior to invoke the Indian Reorganization Act, 25 U.S.C. 5108, and take into trust the Bradley Property, on which the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians wished to build a casino. In an earlier decision, the Supreme Court held that the Secretary lacked sovereign immunity and that Patchak had standing. While the suit was on remand, Congress enacted the Gun Lake Act, 128 Stat. 1913, which “reaffirmed as trust land” the Bradley Property, and provided that “an action . . . relating to [that] land shall not be filed or maintained in a Federal court and shall be promptly dismissed.” The D.C. Circuit and the Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of Patchak’s suit. Section 2(b) of the Gun Lake Act does not violate Article III of the Constitution. While Congress may not exercise the judicial power, it may make laws that apply retroactively to pending lawsuits, even when it effectively ensures that one side will win. Congress violates Article III when it “compel[s] . . . findings or results under old law,” but not when it “changes the law.” By stripping federal courts of jurisdiction over actions “relating to” the Bradley Property, section 2(b) changed the law and is a jurisdiction-stripping statute. When Congress strips federal courts of jurisdiction, it exercises a valid legislative power. View "Patchak v Zinke" on Justia Law