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

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Vol: 111, Issue: 4, Page: 617-644

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Martenson, Christiana M.
Tribal courts; Guilty pleas; Native Americans; Sovereignty; Sixth Amendment; Right to effective counsel; Lawyers; United States v. Ant; Indian tribes; Constitutional Law; Criminal Procedure; Indian and Aboriginal Law
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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.