Domestic Violence Decision of the United States Supreme Court

posted by Judge_Burke @ 14:40 PM
July 13, 2016

The Supreme Court gave federal prosecutors a unanimous win this morning through its opinion in US v. Bryant, No.15-420 (S. Ct. June 13, 2016) (available here). The opinion by Justice Ginsburg for the Court gets started this way:

In response to the high incidence of domestic violence against Native American women, Congress, in 2005, enacted 18 U. S. C. §117(a), which targets serial offenders.  Section 117(a) makes it a federal crime for any person to “commi[t] a domestic assault within . . . Indian country” if the person has at least two prior final convictions for domestic violence rendered “in Federal, State, or Indian tribal court proceedings.”  See Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005 (VAWA Reauthorization Act), Pub. L. 109–162, §§901, 909, 119 Stat. 3077, 3084.1 Respondent Michael Bryant, Jr., has multiple tribal-court convictions for domestic assault. For most of those convictions, he was sentenced to terms of imprisonment, none of them exceeding one year’s duration. His tribal-court convictions do not count for §117(a) purposes, Bryant maintains, because he was uncounseled in those proceedings.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees indigent defendants, in state and federal criminal proceedings, appointed counsel in any case in which a term of imprisonment is imposed.  Scott v. Illinois, 440 U. S. 367, 373–374 (1979).  But the Sixth Amendment does not apply to tribal-court proceedings.  See Plains Commerce Bank v. Long Family Land & Cattle Co., 554 U. S. 316, 337 (2008).  The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 (ICRA), Pub. L. 90–284, 82 Stat. 77, 25 U. S. C. §1301 et seq., which governs criminal proceedings in tribal courts, requires appointed counsel only when a sentence of more than one year’s imprisonment is imposed.  §1302(c)(2).  Bryant’s tribal-court convictions, it is undisputed, were valid when entered.  This case presents the question whether those convictions, though uncounseled, rank as predicate offenses within the compass of §117(a).  Our answer is yes.  Bryant’s tribal-court convictions did not violate the Sixth Amendment when obtained, and they retain their validity when invoked in a §117(a) prosecution.  That proceeding generates no Sixth Amendment defect where none previously existed.


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