Academic journal article Michigan Law Review

Uncounseled Tribal Court Guilty Pleas in State and Federal Courts: Individual Rights versus Tribal Self-Governance

Academic journal article Michigan Law Review

Uncounseled Tribal Court Guilty Pleas in State and Federal Courts: Individual Rights versus Tribal Self-Governance

Article excerpt

Indian tribes in the United States are separate sovereigns with inherent self-governing authority. As a result, the Bill of Rights does not directly bind the tribes, and criminal defendants in tribal courts do not enjoy the protection of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. In United States v. Ant, a defendant-without the legal assistance that a state or federal court would have provided-pled guilty to criminal charges in tribal court. Subsequently, the defendant faced federal charges arising out of the same events that led to the tribal prosecution. The Ninth Circuit in Ant barred the federal prosecutor from using the defendant's prior uncounseled tribal court guilty plea as evidence in the federal proceeding, explaining that doing so would violate the Sixth Amendment. This Note argues that Ant is no longer good law. First, Ant's legal foundation is weak, especially in light of subsequent developments in Sixth Amendment jurisprudence. Second, Ant is poor policy because excluding tribal court guilty pleas from state and federal proceedings undermines tribal self-governance. Even though governments must protect the rights of individual criminal defendants, supporting tribal authority will ultimately lead to decreased violence on Indian land and increased consistency with federal legislation.


On October 27, 1986, Keri Lynn Birdhat, an Indian woman, was found dead on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana.1 Seven weeks later, Northern Cheyenne tribal police arrested Francis Floyd Ant, Birdhat's uncle, and he confessed to killing Birdhat.2 Lacking jurisdiction to charge Ant with homicide,3 the tribe charged Ant with assault and battery.4 Ant entered a guilty plea at his tribal court arraignment and served a sixmonth prison sentence.5 He did not have the assistance of counsel during tribal court proceedings.6

The United States indicted Ant on January 7, 1987, charging Ant with voluntary manslaughter in connection with Birdhat's death.7 Shortly thereafter, Ant filed a motion to suppress his tribal court guilty plea in federal court.8 Pointing to the Sixth Amendment, Ant argued that using his uncounseled tribal court guilty plea as evidence in federal court would deprive him of his constitutional right to counsel.9 In response, the district court first ruled that the tribal court proceedings that resulted in Ant's guilty plea were valid.10 The court then explained that respect for the Northern Cheyenne tribal judicial system required it to admit Ant's guilty plea as evidence.11 On this basis, the court denied Ant's motion.12

Ant appealed his conviction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which reversed the decision of the district court. The Ninth Circuit agreed with the district court with respect to the initial validity of Ant's tribal court guilty plea.13 Although the Sixth Amendment requires state and federal courts to provide attorneys for indigent criminal defendants facing imprisonment,14 neither Northern Cheyenne tribal law nor U.S. federal law required the tribal court to provide counsel to Ant.15 Thus, Ant's tribal court guilty plea, despite Ant's lack of legal representation, was consistent with tribal law, federal law, and the Constitution.16

However, the Ninth Circuit departed from the district court's judgment regarding the use of Ant's tribal court guilty plea in federal court. According to the Ninth Circuit, Ant would have been entitled to counsel in the assault and battery proceeding if it had taken place in federal court rather than in tribal court.17 Therefore, notwithstanding the initial legitimacy of Ant's uncounseled tribal court guilty plea, admitting Ant's plea as evidence in a subsequent federal proceeding would have violated the Constitution.18

For almost twenty-two years, no federal court seriously questioned the Ninth Circuit's decision in United States v. Ant.19 In July 2011, however, two circuit court decisions raised significant doubts about Ant's status as good law. …

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