Supreme Court Case Highlights Issues Of Domestic Abuse, Right To Counsel In Indian Country

Jun 15, 2016

Credit Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

The U.S. Supreme Court has reinstated the conviction of a domestic abuser in Indian Country. A USD law professor says the case highlights the disparity between the right to counsel for Native and non-Native offenders. In tribal court, Native Americans aren’t guaranteed the right to an attorney, like they are in state and federal court.

In response to high rates of domestic violence against Native American women, Congress made it a federal crime to commit domestic assault within Indian Country if that person has at least two prior convictions for that offense. Michael Bryant Junior is a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana. His attorneys argued that because his first two convictions were in tribal court, and he wasn’t represented by an attorney, they couldn’t be used make him eligible for the enhanced sentencing. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Bryant’s attorneys, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision and reinstated the conviction. Frank Pommersheim is a law professor at USD and an appellate judge for a number of tribes. He says the case raises some questions.
 
“There has to be, in my opinion, a consistent approach by Congress, and by tribes themselves to treat all defendants who appear in tribal court and all defendants who appear in federal court, to make sure they are always treated the same in a constitutional sense,” Pommersheim says.
 
Pommersheim says that may be difficult because it requires more resources.
 
Norma Rendon is the Native Co-Director for the South Dakota Coalition Ending Domestic and Sexual Violence. She says she’s glad the Supreme Court reinstated Bryant’s conviction. She says Native women have a hard time finding justice.
 
“There has been a war against Native women and children of this country, and it exists to this day,” Rendon says. “And they say well how is it existing today? Well it’s existing through men being able to rape our women, and there’s no consequences. So what is that telling the male population of America? If you’re going to rape anybody rape an Indian woman because nobody cares, you’ll get away with it.”
 
Rendon says there needs to be more education, and more support from lawmakers on bills protecting women and children.