Indian Tribes, Civil Rights, and Federal Courts
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A citizen’s civil rights include protections against certain actions by three different governments – federal, state, and tribal. If the federal or a state government violates your civil rights, you can seek a remedy in federal court, including injunctive or declaratory judgment and damages. But the Supreme Court decided in Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez that that – other than habeas corpus relief – you cannot challenge a civil rights violation by an Indian tribe in federal court. The decision has resulted in a significant amount of controversy and proposals that Congress explicitly grant such jurisdiction. This article reviews the Supreme Court’s decision and evaluates whether Congress should overturn the decision in Martinez. General considerations concerning whether access to federal courts is desirable include questions about the relative capabilities of other courts, invasion of the autonomy of subordinate sovereign governments, and the deterrence effect of federal jurisdiction. However, the article concludes that these considerations illuminate the issue but do not clearly resolve it. Finally, the article addresses whether the problem of civil rights violations by Indian tribes is serious. How frequent and severe must civil rights violations become before federal jurisdiction is warranted? A relevant comparison is to Congress’s decision to grant federal jurisdiction over civil rights violations by state governments. That comparison supports a conclusion that the answer given by Martinez should not be overturned. Based on the available evidence, violations by tribal officials are relatively infrequent. While the problem of civil rights violations by state governments was serious enough to outweigh concerns associated with federal jurisdiction over subordinate sovereigns, the problem of civil rights violations by tribal governments is not.
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