Takeaways from the Bryant Decision

As observers might have predicted from the oral argument in United States v. Bryant (opinion here), the government’s victory was not surprising. Of course, even a few years ago, this outcome was far from a foregone conclusion, as the 2005 Canby-Washburn-Sands debates in the Federal Sentencing Reporter suggested.

A few takeaways:

1. Remarkable that the Court heaps some of the blame on states for failure to prosecute DV offenses in Indian country, citing to the now-mammoth studies supporting what people in PL280 states have been saying for more than a half-century:

Even when capable of exercising jurisdiction, however, States have not devoted their limited criminal justice resources to crimes committed in Indian country. Jimenez & Song, Concurrent Tribal and State Jurisdiction Under Public Law 280, 47 Am. U. L. Rev. 1627, 1636–1637 (1998); Tribal Law and Policy Inst., S. Deer, C. Goldberg, H. Valdez Singleton, & M. White Eagle, Final Report: Focus Group on Public Law 280 and the Sexual Assault of Native Women 7–8 (2007)…. [slip op. at 5]

2. We all know it’s coming — the constitutional challenge to VAWA’s tribal jurisdictional provisions:

In the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, Congress amended ICRA to authorize tribal courts to “exercise special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction” over certain domestic violence offenses committed by a non-Indian against an Indian. Pub. L. 113–4, §904, 127 Stat. 120–122 (codified at 25 U. S. C. §1304). Tribal courts’ exercise of this jurisdiction requires procedural safeguards similar to those required for imposing on Indian defendants sentences in excess of one year, including the unqualified right of an indigent defendant to appointed counsel. See §1304(d). We express no view on the validity of those provisions. [slip op. at 4 n. 4]

3. As is true most of the time, the Court does not acknowledge the disconnect between the terrible rates of crime in Indian country with the lack of effective law enforcement in Indian country, a reality created by Congress and made worse by the Court itself over the decades. Compare:

“[C]ompared to all other groups in the United States,” Native American women “experience the highest rates of domestic violence.” [slip op. at 2]


That leaves the Federal Government. * * * As a result of the limitations on tribal, state, and federal jurisdiction in Indian country, serial domestic violence offenders, prior to the enactment of §117(a), faced at most a year’s imprisonment per offense—a sentence insufficient to deter repeated and escalating abuse. To ratchet up the punishment of serial offenders, Congress created the federal felony offense of domestic assault in Indian country by a habitual offender. [slip op. at 5, 6]


[Bryant] has a record of over 100 tribal-court convictions, including several misdemeanor convictions for domestic assault. Specifically, between 1997 and 2007, Bryant pleaded guilty on at least five occasions in Northern Cheyenne Tribal Court to committing domestic abuse in violation of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Code. [slip op. at 10]

The feds already don’t have the capacity to prosecute all the repeat DV offenders who are Indians like Bryant, then add in the non-Indians — there’s a problem that 117(a) doesn’t fix.

3. Tribal criminal convictions on Indians in compliance with the Indian Civil Rights Act are all right for Congress, and therefore okay for the Supreme Court:

Proceedings in compliance with ICRA, Congress determined, and we agree, sufficiently ensure the reliability of tribal-court convictions. [slip op. at 16]

Let’s hope that statement applies to non-Indians, too.

4. Tribes start funding those criminal defender offices!!!!! This Lakota woman spent two months in jail because she couldn’t pay a $250 bond, let alone afford an attorney:

Angie told me that she had bought, not sold, marijuana that day. She should have been charged only with possession. She had pleaded not guilty at her arraignment, during which she had no representation. But because of the severity of her alleged crime — selling drugs to a minor — her bond was set at $250. Unable to pay, Angie was expected to sit in jail for the full two months until her next scheduled court appearance.

Indian country talks about taking care of kids and talks about changing the criminal justice system into a system of restorative justice, well, this doesn’t look it it to me.