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Supreme Court Roundup: 2003-2004 Term

The U.S. Supreme Court wrapped up its latest term last week, having decided just one major Indian law case while managing to avoid several others.

Tribes claimed victory when the court, in April, held that tribal governments have jurisdiction over all Indians regardless of membership. The 7-2 decision in US v. Lara reversed a 1990 ruling widely seen as detrimental to sovereignty.

John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), said the favorable decision was indicative of the efforts tribes have made to educate the court on Indian issues. NARF and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) have been submitting briefs in several cases to promote the tribal agenda.

"I think our concentrated efforts at coordinating the arguments in these cases and bringing to bear the best recommendations from tribal attorneys and Supreme Court specialists has really paid off," Echohawk said at NCAI's mid-year session last month.

Tex Hall, president of NCAI, agreed that the Tribal Supreme Court Project has had a positive effect. "This was like the first block on the stairway," he said of the Lara decision.

NARF and NCAI participated in another case argued before the court this past term. The project supported the Miccosukee Tribe's efforts to prevent its homelands in the Florida Everglades from being polluted by a local water district.

Even though the case was sent back to a lower court for further consideration, all nine justices agreed with the tribe's contention that the water district was indeed pumping dirty water into the Everglades. Echohawk counted the March decision in South Florida Water Management District v. Miccosukee Tribe as a positive for Indian Country.

Also in March, the Supreme Court accepted another Indian law matter but has not held oral arguments yet. Tribes petitioned for a review of a federal funding policy that shortchanges them when they contract Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service programs.

Arguments in the Thompson v. Cherokee Nation cases are expected in November. NARF and NARF submitted a brief to back the Cherokee Nation's view that tribes should be awarded full support costs needed to carry out the contracts.

In other developments, the Supreme Court last month agreed to hear a dispute over the Oneida Nation's land rights. The tribe won two decisions supporting its right to be free from state and local taxation and has the backing of the Bush administration. The case is City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation.

The court is typically presented with a dozen or so appeals in Indian-related cases. For the past couple of years, nearly all of them have been rejected.

The pattern was repeated this term when the court refused to hear a case from South Dakota holding that the state illegally imposed a gasoline tax on Indian consumers. The state has been ordered to make refunds to reservation motorists. The case is Pourier v. South Dakota.

Another matter the court rejected ensured that tribes can operate electronic gaming machines free of state and federal interference. Several states and the Bush administration tried to overturn decisions favorable to tribes in Nebraska, Oklahoma and Wyoming.

The move helped gaming manufacturers as well, sending stock prices rising in the wake of the rejection. The cases are US v. Santee Sioux Tribe and US v. Seneca-Cayuga Tribe.

The Supreme Court will meet again in October to consider another round of cases.

Relevant Links:
NARF-NCAI Tribal Supreme Court Project -