The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld a federal law and its stiff prison terms aimed at people who have been convicted of repeated acts of domestic violence on Indian lands.
The justices said in a unanimous decision that the law can be used against defendants, even if they did not have lawyers in earlier domestic violence convictions in tribal courts.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees an attorney for criminal defendants in state and federal courts. 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.
The high court ruled in the case of Michael Bryant Jr., who received a 46-month federal prison term after pleading guilty to assaulting two women. Bryant's record included at least five domestic assault convictions in tribal courts on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana. For most of these assaults, Bryant received jail time of a year or less, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her opinion for the court.
But the U.S. appeals court in San Francisco threw out Bryant's federal prison sentence because his earlier domestic violence convictions were handled without a lawyer.
The justices reversed that ruling Monday. “But, we have long held, the Bill of Rights, including the Sixth Amendment, does not govern tribal-court proceedings,” Ginsburg said.
The Indian Civil Rights Act restricts the right to a lawyer to sentences that exceed a year, Ginsburg said. And Bryant never received a sentence that long in tribal court, she said.
The case is U.S. v Bryant, 15-420.