US Supreme Court to decide whether tribal convictions count

AP News
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Posted: Dec 15, 2015 6:33 PM

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court says it will decide whether a person with multiple domestic violence convictions in tribal court should be subject to harsher punishments for habitual offenders.

The appeal stems from a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling from a Montana case that was contrary to separate circuit court decisions on cases in North Dakota and Utah. The 9th Circuit threw out Northern Cheyenne Tribal Court convictions against Michael Bryant Jr. because Bryant did not have a lawyer. The judges said the lack of legal counsel violated the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The 9th Circuit ruling went against decisions by the 8th Circuit in the case of Roman Cavanaugh Jr., an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, and the 10th Circuit in the case Adam Shavanaux, a member of the Ute tribe in Utah.

Tribal courts generally provide for a maximum sentence of a year in jail on domestic violence convictions, mainly because the tribal system is not required to provide public defenders and could not pay for them if they were mandatory. Federal court allows for more severe punishment, but authorities must show a defendant is a habitual domestic offender or that a gun was involved in the crime.

The announcement by the Supreme Court that it will take up the Bryant case was welcomed by attorneys on opposite sides of the Cavanaugh case, defense attorney Alexander Reichert and former U.S. attorney from North Dakota Timothy Purdon.

"I'm really excited. To see your idea make it to the Supreme Court is a phenomenal feeling," said Reichert, a Grand Forks defense attorney. "I was hoping that my case would go, that the Cavanaugh case would go, but that's fine as long as the issue goes on. I think it's a very important issue and I think we're right."

Purdon, now an attorney for the Minneapolis-based Robins Kaplan firm, said the decision is "great news for folks who are committed to improving public safety" on tribal lands.

"Domestic violence is an escalating crime. The abuser's conduct often gets worse and worse and worse, particularly if escalating conduct is not met with escalating consequences," Purdon said. "An important tool to stopping that escalation is bringing the federal government in, the U.S. attorney's office in, to charge someone as a habitual offender."

Federal prosecutors have long been frustrated by their inability to stop an epidemic of domestic violence on American Indian reservations. Department of Justice statistics show that an American Indian woman born in the United States has a 1-in-3 chance of being sexually assaulted in her lifetime, compared with 1-in-5 for the country as a whole.

Officials with the U.S. attorney's office in Montana, North Dakota and Utah declined to comment.