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Law School Case Brief

Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe - 435 U.S. 191, 98 S. Ct. 1011 (1978)

Rule:

Even ignoring treaty provisions and congressional policy, Indians do not have criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians absent affirmative delegation of such power by Congress. Indian tribes do retain elements of "quasi-sovereign" authority after ceding their lands to the United States and announcing their dependence on the Federal Government. But the tribes' retained powers are not such that they are limited only by specific restrictions in treaties or congressional enactments. Indian tribes are prohibited from exercising both those powers of autonomous states that are expressly terminated by Congress and those powers "inconsistent with their status."

Facts:

When two separate criminal actions were instituted against non-Indians in the Suquamish Indian Provisional Court, the defendants, prior to their trials, instituted separate habeas corpus proceedings in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, contending that the tribal court did not have criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians, but the District Court denied relief. After the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had affirmed the denial of habeas corpus in one case.

Issue:

Do Indian tribal courts have inherent criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The Court noted that by acknowledging their dependence on the United States in the Treaty of Point Elliott, 12 Stat. 927, the Suquamish were in all probability recognizing that the United States would arrest and try non-Indian intruders who came within their reservation. Moreover, even ignoring treaty provisions and congressional policy, the Court held that Indians did not have criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians absent affirmative delegation of such power by Congress. Although Indian tribes retained elements of "quasi-sovereign" authority after ceding their lands to the United States and announcing their dependence on the federal government, the tribes' retained powers were not such that they were limited only by specific restrictions in treaties or congressional enactments. Rather, Indian tribes were prohibited from exercising both those powers of autonomous states that were expressly terminated by Congress and those powers "inconsistent with their status."

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