Supreme Court rules that Native Americans sued in tribal courts can also be sued in federal court

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that Native Americans sued in certain tribal courts can also be sued based on the same incident in federal court, which can result in longer sentences.

The 6-3 decision is consistent with an earlier decision from the 1970s that said the same thing about a more widely used type of tribal court.

The case before the judges concerned a member of the Navajo Nation, Merle Denezpi, accused of rape. He served nearly five months in prison after being charged with assault and battery in what is called an Indian Offenses Court, a court that deals exclusively with alleged Native American offenders.

Under federal law, Indian offenses courts can only impose sentences generally up to one year. Denezpi was later prosecuted in federal court and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He said the Constitution’s “double jeopardy” clause should have barred the second prosecution.

But the judges disagreed.

“Denezpi’s single act led to separate lawsuits for violation of a tribal ordinance and a federal law. Because the tribe and the federal government are separate sovereigns, these “offences are not the same,” Judge Amy Coney Barrett wrote for the majority of the court. “Denezpi’s second prosecution therefore did not violate the double jeopardy clause.”

The Biden administration had pushed for that outcome, as have several states, which have said barring federal prosecutions in similar cases could allow defendants to escape harsh sentences.

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In a dissenting opinion, Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote that the case involved the same “defendant, same crime, same prosecuting authority” and said the majority’s reasoning was “at odds with the text and meaning original of the Constitution”. Conservative Gorsuch was joined in dissent by two of the court’s three liberal justices, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan.

The case before the judges involves a tribal court system that has become increasingly rare over the past century. Indian Offenses Courts were established in the late 1800s, at a time when the federal government’s policy towards Native Americans was to encourage assimilation. Judges and usually prosecutors are appointed by federal officials.

However, federal policy toward Native Americans changed in the mid-1930s to emphasize greater respect for native tribal customs. As part of this, the government encouraged tribes to establish their own tribal courts, and the number of Indian offense courts steadily declined. Today, there are five Regional Indian Offenses Courts serving 16 tribes in Colorado, Oklahoma, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. They are usually tribes with a small number of members or limited resources. Nationwide, there are more than 570 federally recognized tribes.

The court said in 1978 that the double jeopardy clause did not prevent the federal government from prosecuting an Aboriginal person in federal court after a prosecution in tribal court, so the only question for the court this time was whether the rule was to be different for the Indian courts. Offenses, which are sometimes referred to as CFR courts because they have their basis in the Code of Federal Regulations.

In July 2017, Denezpi traveled with a Navajo Nation woman to Towaoc, Colorado, which is part of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. There, Denezpi raped the woman.

Denezpi was initially charged in an Indian offenses court with assault and battery, among other charges. He eventually accepted a so-called plea from Alford in the case, not admitting guilt but acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence that he would likely be convicted at trial. He was sentenced to the sentence served, 140 days in prison. His suit in federal court followed.

A lawyer for Denezpi did not immediately return an email seeking comment following the ruling.

The case is Merle Denezpi v. United States, 20-7622.

Nohemi M. Moore