WASHINGTON — The Obama administration asked the Supreme Court Tuesday to uphold a federal law aimed at people who have been convicted of repeated acts of domestic violence on Indian lands.
The case argued at the high court tests whether the law and its stiff prison terms can be used against defendants who did not have lawyers in earlier domestic violence convictions in tribal courts.
The U.S. appeals court in San Francisco threw out a 46-month federal prison term for defendant Michael Bryant Jr. because his earlier domestic violence convictions were handled without a lawyer in tribal courts on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana.
Several justices seemed skeptical of the argument of Bryant’s lawyer, Steven Babcock. Bryant never challenged his earlier convictions or prison sentences of up to a year. Congress has put limits on prison terms imposed by tribal courts.
“So if it’s a valid conviction, why can’t you use it?” Justice Stephen Breyer asked.
Babcock said the use of the earlier convictions in prosecuting Bryant on new charges violated his constitutional right to a lawyer.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees an attorney for criminal defendants in state and federal courts. Under the Indian Civil Rights Act, defendants have the right to hire their own attorneys in tribal court but are not guaranteed that one will be retained by the court for them.
Justice Department lawyer Elizabeth Prelogar said Congress, in 2005, provided for prosecutions in federal court and lengthier penalties for repeat offenders “in response to the epidemic of domestic violence in Indian Country.”
Bryant has more than 100 tribal court convictions on his record, including five domestic violence convictions between 1997 and 2007, the government said. In 1999, he attempted to strangle his live-in girlfriend and hit her over the head with a beer bottle, the government said. In 2007, Bryant beat up his girlfriend and kneed her in the face, breaking her nose, the government said.
In 2011, federal agents arrested him under the law at issue on charges he beat two women in the span of several months.
Prelogar said the appeals court was wrong to rule in favor of defendants like Bryant “who have abused and battered their intimate partners again and again.”
A decision in U.S. v. Bryant, 15-420, is expected by late June.