New Scholarship on Major Crimes Act Prosecutions and Race

Brian L. Lewis has published his excellent paper, “Do You Know What You Are? You Are What You Is; You Is What You Am: Indian Status for the Purpose of Federal Criminal Jurisdiction and the Current Split in the Court of Appeals,” in the Harvard Journal on Racial and Ethnic Justice (formerly the Harvard BlackLetter Law Journal).

Paper here: Lewis

The paper delves into the recent cases involving Indian status of criminal defendants prosecuted under the Major Crimes Act; and recent cases such as Cruz and Stymiest, where the Ninth and Eighth Circuits, respectively, reached conflicting conclusions on whether nonenrolled Indians are “Indian” under the statute.

Green Bag Highlights Two Key Indian Law Opinions in 2009’s Exemplary Writing

Here is the Green Bag’s announcement, which includes Judge Kozinski’s dissent in United States v. Cruz, and Justice Souter’s concurrence in United States v. Navajo Nation.

We’ve highlighted Judge Kozinski’s dissent in the context of the interesting question about whether a jury (of usually entirely non-Indians, see Dean Washburn’s scholarship) can really make a determination using a series of common law factors that someone is an Indian beyond a reasonable doubt. Most Indians have doubts about other Indians all the time. In Cruz, the court held that an Indian with 22 percent Indian blood was not an Indian. A short time later, in another case we highlighted — United States v. Stymiest, the court held that an Indian with less Indian blood than Cruz was an Indian.

The inclusion of Justice Souter’s concurrence seems to be a but pithy on the part of the Green Bag selection committee. Here it is, in the entirety:

I am not through regretting that my position in United States v. Navajo Nation, 537 U. S. 488, 514–521 (2003) (dissenting opinion), did not carry the day. But it did not, and I agree that the precedent of that case calls for the result reached here. Continue reading

Who is an Indian under the Major Crimes Act?

The Eighth Circuit’s decision that Matthew Stymiest is an “Indian” under 18 U.S.C. 1153(a) raises possible constitutional questions about due process and vagueness of a criminal statute, and it may be ripe for review by the Supreme Court as a circuit split.

Federal courts have adopted common law “tests” to determine whether a person charged under the statute is an Indian — they have to be in order to be convicted. The Eighth Circuit’s test lists a series of factors for a jury to consider in determining whether the defendant is an Indian.

Stymiest is a descendant of Leech Lake Band members, but he does not have the blood quantum to be eligible for membership himself. He often held himself out to be an Indian when it was to his advantage, such as when he was seeking Indian health clinic services, or in earlier criminal debacles where he probably thought it was to his advantage. But the local IHS people often asked him to produce some ID, which of course he never could. So is he an Indian? Hmmm.

And the wild thing about all of this is that under the statute, a jury of non-Indians (likely) will decide on these facts whether or not defendants like Stymiest are Indians beyond a reasonable doubt. As a matter of law, it is improbable that a jury can make a finding of “Indianness” under such a standard.

The Stymiest case likely conflicts in large part with the Ninth Circuit’s recent decision in United States v. Cruz. There, the court held that Christopher Cruz was not an Indian, despite being nearly quarter blood, although ineligible for tribal membership with the Blackfeet Nation. He worked for the BIA, spent several years of his childhood on the reservation, is eligible for some IHS and treaty hunting and fishing benefits, and was even once prosecuted in tribal court for a minor violation. In other words, Cruz is spectacularly similar to Stymiest.

Cruz isn’t an Indian under the Major Crimes Act, but Stymiest is. There’s a problem here.

Continue reading

On Judge Kozinski’s Dissent in U.S. v. Cruz

United States v. Cruz (our post here, with briefs) has been getting a fair bit of attention these days in the news (LA Times; How Appealing here and here; Indianz collects articles), probably because Judge Kozinski dissented so strongly.

It is very interesting to see the Ninth Circuit struggle over who is an Indian for purposes of federal criminal jurisdiction, esp. given how Indian tribes struggle over it. But, unfortunately, cases like this will give United States Attorney’s Offices with Indian Country jurisdiction all the more reason to decline to prosecute Indian Country crimes.

The majority’s opinion, in sort of a backwards way, is heading in the right direction. Eventually, I suspect, the federal courts will abandon the common law free-for-all and adopt a bright-line rule based on tribal citizenship, a standard more in line with the political status test used in Morton v. Mancari.

Right now, in the Ninth Circuit, the test is, according to the Cruz majority:

The Bruce test requires that the Government prove two things: that the defendant has a sufficient “degree of Indian blood,” and has “tribal or federal government recognition as an Indian.” Id. at 1223, 1224 (quoting United States v. Keys, 103 F.3d 758, 761 (9th Cir. 1996)).

The first part, “sufficient degree of Indian blood” apparently can be something less than 25 percent (in Cruz, it was about 22 percent). Some tribes have minimal Indian blood quantum requirements, resorting to lineal descendancy (e.g., Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians).

It’s the second part where the Cruz majority and Judge Kozinski parted. Judge Kozinski’s dissent is a defense of the second prong (but more so a dramatic attack on the majority’s reasoning). He’s right in many respects. Cruz should be considered an Indian and definitely is, at least by his tribal community. But just because his community subjectively views him as one their own, that’s sufficient to invoke the awesome power of the federal criminal laws? The majority wants something more. And what the majority should do — and perhaps the Ninth Circuit will eventually do — is adopt a bright-line rule on what “tribal or federal government recognition as an Indian means.”

In other words, citizenship in a federally recognized tribe should be the rule. It’s simple and easy, and objective. It’s consistent with the political status test of Mancari, and seems less like an arbitrary application of a race-based law. Plus, if A.U.S.A.’s only have to provide evidence that a criminal defendant is a tribal citizen, there is less effort expended in proving the factual predicates to federal criminal jurisdiction.

Ironically, Judge Kozinski’s dissent defending the broader application of the Bruce test is both a defense of a balancing test he decries, and a defense of a race-based standard. It’s ironic because Judge Kozinski once predicted the end of race-based rules in federal Indian law in Williams v. Babbitt, in which he wrote for a majority that struck down laws designed to protect the Alaskan Native reindeer industry on the grounds that they were race-based.

One might argue that there’s a pretty good reason for the definition of Indian to include persons who aren’t members of federally recognized members of Indian tribes, but who are plainly Indian. I’d like to be persuaded that there are good reasons.

Ninth Circuit Reviews Who is An “Indian” under Major Crimes Act

The opinion in United States v. Cruz is here. An excerpt:

At first glance, there appears to be something odd about a court of law in a diverse nation such as ours deciding whether a specific individual is or is not “an Indian.” Yet, given the long and complex relationship between the government of the United States and the sovereign tribal nations within its borders, the criminal jurisdiction of the federal government often turns on precisely this question — whether a particular individual “counts” as an Indian — and it is this question that we address once again today.


Because the evidence adduced during Christopher Cruz’s trial does not satisfy any of the four factors outlined in the second prong of the Bruce test, we hold that, even when viewed in the light most favorable to the government, his conviction cannot stand. The district court’s failure to grant Cruz’s motion for judgment of acquittal was plain error, and accordingly we reverse.

Here are the briefs: