On a Proposed U.S. Attorney for Indian Country

Some commentators have proposed that there should be a United States Attorney’s Office for Indian Country (h/t Indianz). Any kind of dedicated law enforcement structure for Indian Country would be a dramatic improvement, but there are still serious issues that must be addressed. This is an interesting proposal, and it should be looked at from a historical perspective.

The proposal recalls Title 4 of H.R. 7902 of the 73rd Congress, the original bill of the Indian Reorganization Act, in which the drafters (primarily Felix Cohen) proposed a Federal Court of Indian Affairs. As we all know, that part of the bill went nowhere. As Vine Deloria and Clifford Lytle noted in 1984, the federal court of Indian affairs would bring the federal courts to Indian Country, the framers of the bill recognizing that Indians had extreme practical difficulty in appearing in federal court due to georgraphic isolation.

That geographic isolation remains, as does the difficulty in traveling to appear in federal court. Part of the reason, according to present and former U.S. Attorneys, that the declination rates in Indian Country crime are so high is this geographic isolation. Any proposal must acknowledge this factor and take steps to respond.

Another practical diffculty, not present in the same degree in the 1930s as it is now, are the jurisdictional quandries created by the checkerboarding of lands and jurisdiction. Questions about the jurisdiction of the proposed USAIC will be raised by the USAs already in Indian Country (ND, MI, WA, ID, AZ, NM, and so on). Declinations also result from the added difficulty of proving Indian Country status as an element of the crime committed. The new USAIC will not help this problem.

We continue to firmly believe that any Indian Country law enforcement program must involve the reaffirmation of tribal criminal jurisdiction. Expansion of federal capacities, while an improvement, cannot solve the problem.