Michigan Law Review Note on Uncounseled Tribal Court Convictions

Christiana M. Martenson has published “Uncounseled Tribal Court Guilty Pleas in State and Federal Courts: Individual Rights Versus Tribal Self-Governance” (PDF) in the Michigan Law Review. Here is the abstract:

Indian tribes in the United States are separate sovereigns with inherent self-governing authority. As a result, the Bill of Rights does not directly bind the tribes, and criminal defendants in tribal courts do not enjoy the protection of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. In United States v. Ant, a defendant—without the legal assistance that a state or federal court would have provided—pled guilty to criminal charges in tribal court. Subsequently, the defendant faced federal charges arising out of the same events that led to the tribal prosecution. The Ninth Circuit in Ant barred the federal prosecutor from using the defendant’s prior uncounseled tribal court guilty plea as evidence in the federal proceeding, explaining that doing so would violate the Sixth Amendment. This Note argues that Ant is no longer good law. First, Ant’s legal foundation is weak, especially in light of subsequent developments in Sixth Amendment jurisprudence. Second, Ant is poor policy because excluding tribal court guilty pleas from state and federal proceedings undermines tribal self-governance. Even though governments must protect the rights of individual criminal defendants, supporting tribal authority will ultimately lead to decreased violence on Indian land and increased consistency with federal legislation.

Natelson/Kopel Respond to Balkin on “Commerce”


Of note, here is the part of the response directed toward the Indian Commerce Clause:

The Indian Intercourse Act. Plentiful Founding-Era evidence, including enactments of the Confederation Congress and state legislatures, show that “Commerce with the Indian tribes” referred to mercantile trade with the Indians and certain tightly related activities, such as the licensing of and control over the behavior of merchants.[19]

Balkin enlists the Indian Intercourse Act of 1790 as exemplifying a broad meaning of the Indian Commerce Clause. Because the 1790 act included some criminal provisions (as trade regulations often did), Balkin argues that the meaning of “commerce” extended far beyond trade.

The Indian Intercourse Act was adopted after the Constitution had been ratified, and, like the Sedition Act a few years later, is not necessarily a correct guide to public understanding of the Constitution at the time of ratification. However, if the act had been adopted pursuant to the commerce power, and  before the holdouts of North Carolina and Rhode Island had ratified the Constitution, the act would help the Balkin thesis very little, for the law’s criminal provisions were typical of contemporaneous trade regulation-designed to protect trade by punishing merchants who entered Indian territory without authorization.[20]

In fact, however, the law was an exertion of the treaty power, not the commerce power. It was adopted on the recommendation of President Washington “for extending a trade to [the Indians] agreeably to the treaties of Hopewell.”[21] Several years ago, one of us discussed this background, including an explanation for why the law extended beyond the signatory tribes.[22]


Jack Balkin’s “Commerce” Published in Michigan Law Review


Our prior discussion of this article, along with several very interesting comments, is here.

Here is the abstract:

This Article applies the method of text and principle to an important problem in constitutional interpretation: the constitutional legitimacy of the modern regulatory state and its expansive definition of federal commerce power. Some originalists argue that the modern state cannot be justified, while others accept existing precedents as a “pragmatic exception” to originalism. Nonoriginalists, in turn, point to these difficulties as a refutation of originalist premises.

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Bethany Berger’s History of Williams v. Lee

Bethany Berger has posted “Williams v. Lee and the Debate over Indian Equality,” forthcoming in the Michigan Law Review, on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Williams v. Lee (1959) created a bridge between century-old affirmations of the immunity of Indian territories from state jurisdiction and the tribal self-determination policy of the twentieth century. It has been called the first case in the modern era of federal Indian law. Although no one has written a history of the case, it is generally assumed to be the product of a timeless and unquestioning struggle of Indian peoples for sovereignty. This Article, based on based on interviews with the still-living participants and examination of the congressional records, Navajo council minutes, and Supreme Court transcripts, records, and justice’s notes, reveals an unexpected complexity in both Indian and non-Indian contributions to the case and the era in federal Indian policy from which it emerged.

This history shows that both Williams and the policy developments that surrounded it emerged from consensus about the need for Indian equality and equal opportunity in the 20th century, but Indian and non-Indian debate about whether equality meant full assimilation and termination of the special legal status of tribes, or continued respect for the ability of Indian peoples to govern themselves. It makes this debate concrete through the story of the Williams family, for whom the state collection action and the resulting seizure of the family sheep herd struck at the heart of Navajo lifestyle and culture. It further connects the case to the momentous debates over African American integration generated with Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Cooper v. Aaron (1958). Ultimately, I argue, Williams v. Lee and the self-determination movement that followed it represent a choice by American Indians to insist that respect for tribal status was necessary to ensure Indian equality in the modern era. This history and its results provide an important lesson today as federal Indian policies are increasingly attacked as fundamentally inconsistent with fairness and equality.

Lost “Indian Law” Article by Justice Scalia

Kate Fort dug this up — it’s a Michigan Law Review article from then-Professor Scalia on federal sovereign immunity in the context of public lands cases, pre-APA. Most of the cases he discusses involving Indian lands. His aversion to federal common law is apparent at the end of the article.

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