New Mexico’s tribal courts may be safe from the ramifications of a recent Supreme Court ruling due to established law codified by Congress and a friendlier relationship with the state government.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Oklahoma vs. Castro-Huerta is causing some concern for Native American legal experts because the court grants greater power to state governments to prosecute the criminal cases of non-Native Americans for crimes committed on tribal lands.
This could have far-reaching implications for tribal nations across the country that operate their own courts and criminal justice systems. Immediately, Huerta will have the most direct impact on the sovereign nations of Oklahoma, as the case was a direct appeal to the recent SCOTUS ruling McGirt v. Oklahoma, which established the jurisdiction of tribal courts over large swaths of the state, strengthening those courts.
In 2015, Victor Manuel Castro was convicted of child neglect in Oklahoma. Castro is not aboriginal and his daughter is a registered citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Castro’s attorneys appealed the decision arguing that the state lacked jurisdiction to convict him because the crimes took place on tribal land. Oklahoma State, seeking to turn the tide McGirt cases, asked the Supreme Court to reconsider more than 40 cases he lost on appeal. The one who made it to the high court, Castro Huertaestablished state authority over crimes involving non-natives that occur on tribal lands.
The SCOTUS decision upheld the state’s conviction, arguing that police and state attorneys share concurrent criminal jurisdiction with the federal government to prosecute crimes committed by non-natives within tribal communities.
In New Mexico, tribal governments may be isolated from authority that impinges on tribal criminal prosecutions due to 2005 congressional amendments to the Indian Public Land Act that specifies jurisdictional powers among Pueblos, the federal government and state governments.
On top of that, government-to-state government relations could also benefit tribal interests, said John Lavelle, a law professor at the University of New Mexico.
“New Mexico is at the top of the most respectful states when it comes to the state’s relationship with tribes and respecting the federal-tribal relationship,” he said.
LaVelle (Santee Sioux Nation) said the Navajo Nation also has legal protections in the state because of the Navajo Treaty of 1868, which allowed the Navajo to live on ancestral lands and run their own government, including a Ministry of Justice.
He said the Apache groups also have a legal precedent for the protections.
The protections that Lavelle outlined for the Pueblos were passed by Congress in 2005 and clarified three things that were not present in the Huerta Case. Pueblos can prosecute Native Americans accused of committing crimes within a Pueblo community. The federal government has jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Native Americans for crimes committed on tribal lands. And the state can take cases that the federal government can’t pursue under those same circumstances.
Because it was passed by Congress, LaVelle said there should be no conflict between the tribes and the New Mexico legal system over how these cases will be handled in the future — an issue that , according to him, was highlighted in the opinions on the Huerta decision.
Because Oklahoma’s tribes don’t have jurisdictional issues triaged by Congress in the same way as New Mexico’s Pueblos, it was ultimately referred to the Supreme Court, LaVelle said. Yet, depending on the tribe and state, criminal jurisdiction could be a “case-by-case determination.”
Legal experts in tribal law spoke on the issues that Huerta case could be presented at a seminar hosted by Arizona State University.
Stacy Leeds, a law professor at ASU, said Congress would be unlikely to pass an amendment similar to the one put in place for Pueblos in New Mexico.
“I think it’s unrealistic to go to Congress and get a Castro Huerta complete solution,” she said. “I don’t think that’s realistic. I don’t think all tribes would necessarily support that.
Leeds (Cherokee Nation) said tribal courts across the country may not see much change in their caseloads if state governments try to take over their cases. “Maybe their records would be reduced by 10% to 20%, but the core of their mission, what they do every day, doesn’t change at all.”
“The only place I see now that there’s going to be a big overlap that worries me is in domestic and family violence cases,” Leeds said.
Kevin Washburn, dean and professor of law at the University of Iowa, said states have an obligation to consult with tribes about what cases they might pursue, but it’s more or less a rule on paper. .
“The state has power now, but it doesn’t necessarily have the same sense of responsibility to tribes and Indians,” Washburn (Chickasaw Nation) said. “Remember that states have no trust responsibility.”
“Fiduciary responsibility” is a legal framework of Indian federal law where the Supreme Court established in 1983 “the undisputed existence of a general relationship of trust between the United States and the people of India”.
That and five bucks will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks, Washburn joked.
Huerta is not the end of tribal law. This is another step in the long process that Native Americans have undertaken to build restorative justice. The SCOTUS opinion is a volley back to the tribes in the slow process of equality being formed by the courts.
And as we saw in the 2022 SCOTUS rulings that give more power to state governments on topics like gun control and reproductive rights, tribes will have to do even more work with states that now have greater authority to prosecute crimes that occur in tribal communities.
LaVelle points out that the High Court has played a role in framing Native American rights since the early 1830s, when Justice John Marshall defined the Court’s role in establishing a relationship between the federal government and tribes.
“It’s one of the fundamental tenets of the field, and it’s been going on all these years for (almost) 200 years,” LaVelle said. “The basic fundamental principle is that Indian people and Indian country are fundamentally free or insulated from at least the authority of the state. Now we have this Castro Huerta decision that reverses the situation. And that is what is most worrying. »