Special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction for Indian tribes took effect nationally on March 7, 2015, and it was a historic moment for the tribes. Ever since the Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, tribes had been powerless to exercise criminal jurisdiction over non‐Indian defendants. Because the Court held that “Indian tribes do not have inherent jurisdiction to try and punish non‐Indians,” an unfortunate gap in enforcement resulted: for crimes committed in Indian country, where states’ criminal jurisdiction is limited and where the federal government lacks the resources to prosecute crimes effectively, non‐Indian offenders regularly escaped prosecution. This problem was particularly disturbing in the context of domestic violence and related crimes. For example, sixty‐seven percent of the sexual abuse and related offenses committed in Indian country and charged in fiscal years 2005–2009 were left unprosecuted by the federal government.
Enter VAWA 2013 and special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction for Indian tribes. Recognizing that “much of the violence against Indian women is perpetrated by non‐Indian men” who “regularly go unpunished,” Congress intended special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction to fill the prosecutorial enforcement gap for domestic violence offenses. Codified at 13 U.S.C. § 1304, the new provisions recognize tribes’ “inherent power . . . to exercise special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction over all persons”—including non‐Indians.
Although tribes and their advocates have celebrated VAWA 2013’s partial override of the Oliphant decision, special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction has yet to withstand constitutional scrutiny at the Supreme Court. In the debates before VAWA 2013’s passage, tribal jurisdiction over non‐Indians sparked controversy because legislators and commentators understood that non‐Indian defendants prosecuted and tried in tribal court would not receive the full protection of the federal Constitution. This constitutional question—whether the Constitution applies in full force in prosecutions brought under special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction—turns on whether the expanded tribal jurisdiction is an exercise of “inherent” tribal sovereignty or delegated federal authority. If the new jurisdiction is an exercise of inherent tribal sovereignty, then tribes are not obligated to provide non‐Indian defendants with the full protection of the federal Constitution. But if the new jurisdiction is delegated federal authority, then non‐Indian defendants would be entitled to the full panoply of rights under the federal Constitution—including, potentially, the right to an Article III judge appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate under Article II of the Constitution. The bounds of inherent tribal sovereignty could thus determine whether special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction lives or dies.
This Comment begins in Part I by outlining the history of tribal criminal jurisdiction in Indian country, with a focus on the law most relevant to analyzing the bounds of tribes’ inherent sovereignty to adjudicate crimes over non‐Indians. Part II explains VAWA 2013’s special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction in more detail and summarizes how it has been implemented since the statute’s enactment. Part III discusses the arguments for and against finding that tribes have inherent tribal sovereignty to exercise special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction, and why the outcome matters for both tribes and non‐Indian defendants. Part IV takes an aside to note the lurking influence of the congressional plenary power doctrine, which gives Congress broad authority to legislate in the realm of Indian affairs. And Part V outlines how courts’ ultimate rulings (and their underlying reasoning) would affect special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction’s future. The Conclusion addresses the underlying questions: What are the bounds of tribes’ inherent sovereignty? From what does that sovereignty derive? The answer will affect not just special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction under VAWA 2013, but also possible future expansions of tribal criminal jurisdiction by Congress.