Supreme Court case pits tribes against states
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MONDAY, MARCH 31, 2003

The Supreme Court hears its only Indian law case of the current term today by entering familiar territory: dueling tribal and state sovereignties.

The last time the issue came before the court, tribal leaders found the result disastrous. In a unanimous June 2001 decision, the justices upheld the right of states to investigate tribal members for crimes that allegedly occur off-reservation.

"State sovereignty does not end at a reservation's border," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a passage Indian Country found particularly alarming.

The Nevada v. Hicks ruling touched off a firestorm of complaints and has led to legislation that seeks its reversal. But the decision left open a key question that is at the center of today's case, Inyo County v. Bishop Paiute Tribe. Do state police powers extend to tribal governments?

The answer, according to a host of tribal organizations, the Bush administration and some state governments, is a resounding no. In a series of amicus briefs, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA), the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET), 17 individual tribes, the Department of Justice and the states of New Mexico, Montana, Arizona and Washington urge the Supreme Court not to infringe on tribal sovereignty.

"This court has never held that states have inherent jurisdiction over tribal governments on tribal lands," USET wrote in its brief. "To do so now would overturn more than two centuries of federal Indian law based on the understanding that tribes are sovereigns subordinate to the authority of Congress, but not subordinate to the states."

On the other side of the argument are more than a dozen states, one of the largest counties in the country and two law enforcement organizations. Saying that states' rights are at risk, their answer to the question is a thundering yes.

"The decision below poses a real threat to the integrity of [state] sovereignty reserved by them under the Constitution, and in particular to their inherent authority to discharge the day-to-day governmental responsibility to seek and seize evidence of criminal activity," wrote the attorneys general of 13 states.

The diverging viewpoints rest on an equally troublesome set of facts. In March 2000, the sheriff of Inyo County in California obtained a search warrant to search records at a casino owned by the Bishop Paiute Tribe. The county was investigating alleged welfare fraud among three casino employees, all American Indian.

Ignoring the complaints of tribal officials, the sheriff used bolcultters to break into a locked area of the casino. The records of more than 80 employees were seized.

Despite the heavy hand, no wrongdoing was ever found and the case against the three employees was dropped. But under threat of another raid, the tribe went to court to protect its rights and employees.

"We would have worked with the county," said former tribal chairman Monty Begochia, "if the employees had signed a statement to allow us to release the records for the investigation. It would have been no problem to us. But our policy does not allow us to do that, to disseminate that information [without consent]."

Reversing a federal judge, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in February 2002 agreed with the tribe. "We find that the county and its agents violated the tribe's sovereign immunity when they obtained and executed a search warrant against the tribe and tribal property," Judge Harry Pregerson wrote in a unanimous decision.

The court also said the tribe's federal civil rights were violated, another issue being considered on appeal. In briefs to the Supreme Court, Inyo County and its supporters disagree. The Department of Justice -- while siding with the tribe on the sovereignty issue -- also disagrees.

The Department of Justice will present its two views along with the the tribe and Inyo County. The Supreme Court on March 21 granted permission for a government attorney to argue at today's hearing.

Supreme Court Briefs:
Inyo County v. Bishop Paiute Tribe

Decision Below:
BISHOP PAIUTE TRIBE v. COUNTY OF INYO No. 01-15007 (January 4, 2002)

Relevant Documents:
Docket Sheet: No. 02-281 | Senate Testimony: Monty Bengochia on Supreme Court Precedents

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