Supreme Court To Hear Arguments On Federal Involvement In Tribal Domestic Violence Cases

By Heather van Blokland
Published: Tuesday, April 19, 2016 - 9:34am

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether federal felony charges can be filed against defendants who were previously convicted of multiple domestic violence counts in tribal courts that didn't provide attorneys.

The case to be heard Tuesday marks a test for federal efforts to combat domestic violence in Indian Country, where Congress has begun broadening tribes' authority to prosecute cases.

A decade-old law has sought to combat high assault rates on reservations. Offenders with multiple convictions are sent to the federal courts for possible stiffer punishments. That statute is now being challenged. Challenging attorneys say defendants must be guaranteed counsel in tribal courts if their cases ultimately serve as grounds for stiffer penalties in U.S. courts.

Before a 2005 law establishing habitual status prosecution, federal agents could only intervene in domestic violence cases on reservations and in tribal communities after a victim was seriously injured. Under the Indian Civil Rights Act, defendants have the right to hire their own attorneys in tribal court but are not guaranteed that one will be retained by the court for them.

Federal data show nearly half of American Indian or Alaska Native women have been victims of stalking or physical or sexual violence.