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Article III and Indian Tribes

By Grant Christensen. Full Text.

Among the most basic principles of our federal courts is that they are courts of limited jurisdiction, exercising only those powers delegated to them in Article III. In 1985 the Supreme Court inexplicably created an exception to this constitutional tenet and unilaterally declared a plenary judicial power to review the exercise of an Indian tribe’s inherent sovereign authority. This exception is unmoored from all other Supreme Court precedent outside Indian law and unjustifiably assumes the judicial power in direct contrast to the Court’s ordinarily thoughtful jurisprudence on Article III and deference to the separation of powers.

This Article concludes that the Supreme Court was wrong in 1985 when it assumed a plenary judicial power over Indian affairs. The consequences are profound and suggest a reconceptualization of the entire field of Indian law. Canon-creating cases like Oliphant, Montana, and Cabazon should never have been decided because the exercise of a tribe’s inherent authority does not create a federal question conferring subject-matter jurisdiction on the federal courts. The inherent power of Indian tribes to criminally prosecute or civilly regulate non-Indians in Indian country should not subject them to the judicially imposed limits set by the Supreme Court because the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction to decide those cases. Until a treaty or statute creates an affirmative basis for federal court review, an Indian tribe’s inherent powers are subject to the checks and balances imposed by tribal government and no others.