Treaty Rights and the Cherokee Freedmen Decision

This isn’t a post on the merits of the Freedmen case, but instead a rumination about the import of U.S.–tribal treaty rights in tribal courts. Generally, do treaty rights have legal import in tribal court?

My reading of the Nash case (here) is that anyone claiming to assert treaty rights against an Indian tribe who was a party to the treaty may be foreclosed from bringing those claims without the presence of the United States (the other party to the treaty) as a party to the litigation. If that reading has broad implications for Indian treaties, then no treaty right could effectively be litigated in tribal court without the presence of the United States. An odd result, to be sure.

This isn’t a purely academic question. A few years back, the Ninth Circuit wondered why it was still deciding treaty rights subproceedings in United States v. Washington that don’t involve either the United States or Washington, or really any of the underlying issues about the treaty right. Many of the cases are intertribal conflicts. There may be an intertribal court for the Puget Sound treaty tribes someday, all without the presence of the United States. And properly so.

This all suggests the United States doesn’t need to be a party to treaty rights litigation in every case.

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Cherokee Supreme Court Dismisses Challenge to Cherokee Freedmen Disenfranchisement

Here is the opinion in Cherokee Nation Registrar v. Nash (h/t Indianz):

SC-11-02 15-Opinion CN Registrar v Nash

And the relevant briefs:

Cherokee Nation Appellant Brief

Nash Answer Brief

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