American Judges Association


Date of this Version



Court Review, Volume 45, Issues 1-2, 12-19


Copyright © 2009 American Judges Association. Used by permission.


State and federal courts increasingly are being confronted with prosecutors moving the court to consider prior convictions in American Indian tribal courts during the sentencing phase, and sometimes earlier. For example, in People v. Wemigwans, the Michigan Court of Appeals allowed the use of a defendant’s two prior tribal court convictions to support a state-law felony charge for drunk driving, third offense. But in United States v. Lente, a divided panel of the Tenth Circuit noted that prior tribal court convictions (that apparently were uncounseled) for drunk driving did not support an upward departure under the federal sentencing guidelines. If the conviction being introduced occurred in state or federal court, the instant court would be obligated to give full faith and credit to that conviction. But if the prior conviction occurred in a tribal court, state and federal courts are often confronted with unforeseen complexities.

This article is intended to parse through much of the political baggage associated with recognizing tribal court convictions. To be frank, the law is unsettled, leaving little guidance for state and federal judges in these cases, while at the same time granting enormous discretion to judges on the questions involved. The first part of this article will provide a quick overview of the constitutional status of Indian tribes and tribal courts, as well providing a basic but sufficient introduction to relevant principles of federal Indian law. The second part will offer a summary of criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country and, in particular, what role tribes play – and how well they play it. The third part offers a short description of the key cases in the field, as well as relevant federal and state statutes, and state court rules. It also offers a short normative argument on the question of what state and federal court judges who are confronted with prior tribal court convictions should look for in these cases, especially where the defendants convicted in tribal court are not represented by counsel.