The question of whether Congress may create legal classifications based on Indian status under the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause is reaching a critical point. Critics claim the Constitution allows no room to create race- or ancestry-based legal classifications. The critics are wrong.
When it comes to Indian affairs, the Constitution is not colorblind. I argue that, textually, the Indian Commerce Clause and Indians Not Taxed Clause serve as express authorization for Congress to create legal classifications based on Indian race and ancestry, so long as those classifications are not arbitrary, as the Supreme Court stated a century ago in United States v. Sandoval and more recently in Morton v. Mancari.
Should the Supreme Court reconsider those holdings, I suggest there are significant structural reasons as to why the judiciary should refrain from applying strict scrutiny review of congressional legal classifications. The reasons are rooted in the political question doctrine and the institutional incapacity of the judiciary. Who is an Indian is a deeply fraught question that judges have no special institutional capacity to assess.