Supreme Court adds two cases involving Native Americans to docket
Photo credit: Stephanie Sundier
Supreme Court adds two cases involving Native Americans to docket

The Supreme Court added two new cases Monday involving Native Americans to its docket this term.

The first case is Denezpi v. United States, which asks the Court to consider an issue regarding the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment. In 2017 Merle Denezpi, a member of the Navajo Nation, pleaded guilty to an assault charge before the Court of Indian Offenses, for which he was sentenced to 140 days incarceration. Six months after he completed his sentence, he was indicted and charged in the federal district court for the district of Colorado with aggravated sexual assault based on the same events. He was found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Denezpi contends that the prosecution in the federal court violated the constitutional ban on double jeopardy, which prohibits anyone from being prosecuted twice for essentially the same crime. However, under the dual sovereignty doctrine, the prosecution of a crime under the laws of one sovereign does not count for double jeopardy purposes under the laws of a second sovereign. The government is arguing that the Court of Indian Offenses is a tribunal exercising the sovereign powers of the Navajo tribe, while Denezpi is arguing that the Court of Indian Offenses is a federal agency, precluding the dual-sovereignty doctrine.

The second case is Ysleta del Sur Pueblo v. Texas. In 1987 Congress passed the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and Alabama-Coushatta Indian Tribes of Texas Restoration Act, which included provisions regarding gaming on the tribes’ lands. The law prohibits all gaming activities which are prohibited by the state of Texas from being played on tribal lands. A 1994 decision by the Fifth Circuit read the Restoration Act to grant Texas regulatory authority over non-prohibited gaming activities on tribal lands.

The tribe and the state have been at loggerheads about the scope of gaming permitted on tribal land ever since. The tribe operates the Speaking Rock Entertainment Center near El Paso, where it offers bingo activities. They are asking the Court to correct the Fifth Circuit decision and restore their sovereign authority to regulate non-prohibited games, including bingo, on their lands. The state contends that the Restoration Act federalized Texas’ ban on nearly all forms of gambling and that the tribe has been illegally trying to run a casino under the terms of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Oral arguments in both cases will be heard next year.