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Navigating through the complex web that is American Indian Law one is bound to come across Public Law 280.  Passed in 1953 by congress, it seeks to grant state authority for matters involving Indian litigants. Effectively reducing federal involvement in such matters. However, will this was a radical shift it was not a complete relinquishment of federal intervention in tribal affairs. As it did not end empower the states with complete jurisdiction. It did not end the land trust relationship between the federal government and the tribes (p.176). The tribes also continued to retain sovereign immunity (p.176).  See California V. Quechan Tribe  (p.176). This shift in jurisdictional authority was not openly welcomed by the states. Congress granted law enforcement to the states without any appropriations to fund such efforts (p.177). The tribes were irked by the fact that state jurisdiction was extended over tribal affairs without their consent (p.177). Unquestionably making federal authorities the bootleggers of this legislative arrangement.

It is important to note that the extent to which a state possesses authority over tribal affairs has varied. The varying levels of state responsibilities have been spelled out in subsequent revisions to the law. Six states were even allotted authority over specific crimes committed by Indians on tribal land.

18 U.S.C.A  Section: 1162a: (P. 178-179).

Alaska- Criminal and civil Jurisdiction over all natives except for those belonging to the Metlakatla tribe

California- The state has been provided criminal and civil jurisdiction over all Indians.

Minnesota- Jurisdiction has been extended to the state except for members residing on the Red Lake Reservation

Nebraska-  The state has been provided criminal and civil jurisdiction over all Indians.

Oregon- Jurisdiction has been extended to the state except for members residing on the Warm Springs Reservation.

Wisconsin-  The state has been provided criminal and civil jurisdiction over all Indians.

In effect enabling the states to have the same authority to enforce the law insider the reservation as they do off of Indian land (p.179).  To prevent any legislative inconstancies Chapter VI, Sec D, Supra; of Public Law 280 includes the verbiage “.. by or against Indians..” (p.179). Handing over full law enforcement authority to the six listed states, minus any noted exceptions. Despite the overreach of state authority over tribal matters, this amendment does not clearly distinguish the role of tribal law enforcement. It is assumed that the tribes can only formulate laws that “…complement state..” (p.180). However, in regulatory areas that are not specified in Public Law 280 such as hunting/fishing rights, tribal regulations, and taxation “… the state lacks general powers…” (p.180). It is slightly reassuring to see that in the context of tribal jurisdiction that “taxation without representation” is being adhered to.

As previously mentioned, Public Law 280 also extends fully civil jurisdiction to the six states listed above.  In other words, the states have been empowered to rule on disputes involving Indians that transpire on Indian soil. This power vested in  28 U.S.C.A. Section 1360a. This amendment side-stepping the ruling in  Williams v. Lee (1959) which resulted in a ruling that the states do not hold adjudicatory power over civil matter arising in Indian country (p.181). However, under section 1360b prohibits the states from making judgments regarding Indian trust lands (p.181). Providing a relatively minor check on state power over tribal affairs.

Odds are congress could not foresee many of the challenges presented by Public Law 280 and its subsequent amendments. Providing the astute observe with a shining example of legislative hubris. One of these noteworthy and burdensome controversies is whether city or county ordinances as civil laws of the state. Questioning whether such municipal laws apply to Indian lands that fall within the town’s geographic boundaries (p.182). The ruling in Rincon Band of Mission Indians V. County of San Diego that “general applicability” extends to state laws and not local ordinances (p. 182). Only adding fuel to the fire, the Ninth Circuit Court expressed that congress “… imposing detailed local regulations upon Indians..” hinders their ability to self-govern (p.182). The Supreme Court has not directly ruled that applying local laws to the tribes is outside of the scope of Public Law 280. However, the SCOTUS has “expressed doubt” that the law enables local towns and counties to do so (p.183).

The second major conundrum conjured up by this superior piece of legislation  (sarcasm) is if the states have the right to enforce the law why wouldn’t they have the power to legislate laws applicable to the tribes? Per the language of  Public Law 280, the states have the power to decide cases, but not explicitly granted the power of legislation (p. 183). There is a portion of the law in which it could be interpreted as granting legislative power to the states.  Stating that “ … the state shall have the same force and effect within… Indian Country as it does elsewhere within the state” (p.183). The SCOTUS ended the intense debate in the ruling of Bryan v. Itasca County (1976). In this scenario, Minnesota County attempted to assess taxes on personal property that was owned by Indians on Indian soil (p. 183). It was argued that since the property being taxed was not trust lands, it was with n the power of the state to collect such taxes. However, the SCOTUS ruled the intention of the civil provisions under Public Law 280 was to enable the states to resolve disputes. However, extending this power to taxation veers outside of the intended scope of the law (p.184-185).

Public Law 280 managed to further complicate the matter of jurisdiction in Indian affairs. The law is inherently unjust, due to the lack of consent on the part of tribal and state governments.  For the applicable tribes in the six referenced states, they have lost more autonomy over governance within Indian territories. The states ended up inheriting higher law enforcement expenditures and more headaches. The matter of jurisdiction was already complex before 280 passing. It only serves to compound an already convoluted situation.  By adding additional intricacies, merely to relieve the federal government from duties that have been traditional held under its jurisdiction. Typically, federalism does appear to an attractive solution to most legal conflicts. Not so much under these circumstances.  The feds are only passing the buck on a mess they created.

2 thoughts on “Public Law 280- Only Making Matters Worse

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