8th Circuit accepts tribal court convictions for federal prosecution

Federal prosecutors can use tribal court convictions against a Spirit Lake Dakotah Nation man even though he wasn't provided with an attorney, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Wednesday.

Roman Cavanaugh Jr. was charged in federal court with domestic assault by a "habitual" offender. Prosecutors cited three prior convictions in Spirit Lake court for domestic abuse in labeling him as a repeat violator.

Cavanaugh said the tribal convictions couldn't be raised in federal court because he wasn't provided with an attorney, as required by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A federal judge agreed and dismissed the indictment.

On appeal, the 8th Circuit reversed. By a 2-1 decision, the court said the Sixth Amendment does not apply to the actions of tribal governments.

"Although Indians are citizens of the United States entitled to the same constitutional protections against federal and state action as all citizens, the Constitution does not apply to restrict the actions of Indian tribes as separate, quasi-sovereign bodies," Judge Michael Joseph Melloy wrote for the majority.

The court also noted that Congress "enjoys broad power to regulate tribal affairs and limit or expand tribal sovereignty through the Indian Commerce Clause" of the Constitution. Federal law, under 18 U.S.C. § 117, recognizes the use of "Indian tribal court proceedings" in order to punish habitual domestic violence offenders.

Judge Kermit Edward Bye dissented. He said a tribal court proceeding in which a person was denied counsel violates the Constitution.

"In this case, the district court correctly observed, '[t]he issue before the Court is not to question the validity of the tribal court proceedings or question the tribal justice system, but instead to evaluate whether the convictions satisfy constitutional requirements for use in a federal prosecution in federal court," Bye wrote.

Cavanaugh's attorney said he plans to appeal.

Turtle Talk posted briefs from the case, US v. Cavanaugh.

Get the Story:
Court: Man accused of beating can be charged (AP 7/6)

8th Circuit Decision:
US v. Cavanaugh (July 6, 2011)

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