Supreme Court Reaffirms Indigenous Authority on Native Reservations

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By Quentin Choy

June 1, 2021

The U.S. Supreme Court on June 1 unanimously reaffirmed the authority of native tribes on reservations in the Supreme Court case United States v. Cooley (2021). The case revolved around the legitimacy and authority of tribal police powers in the stop and search of Joshua James Cooley, a non-native who parked his vehicle on reservation land in Montana.

While Cooley had before been indicted on drug and gun offenses, he was again caught by Officer Saylor and an officer from the Bureau of Indian Affairs who discovered two semiautomatic rifles as well as the methamphetamine.

Cooley attempted to contest the charges against him by the Officer James Saylor, who is of Crow ancestry after the officer found over 50 grams of methamphetamine and weapons in plain view within the vehicle. Justice Stephen Breyer who delivered the Court’s opinion wrote about the legal precedence of tribal authority on reservations, saying:

“We have previously noted that a tribe retains inherent
sovereign authority to address “conduct [that] threatens or
has some direct effect on . . . the health or welfare of the
tribe.” Montana v. United States (1981). We believe this statement of law governs here. And we hold the tribal officer possesses the authority at issue.”

Justice Stephen Breyer in Supreme Court opinion for United States v. Cooley (2021)
U.S. Supreme Court Justices as of June 2021. First row left to right: Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Barrett. Second row left to right: Roberts, Thomas, Breyer, Alito. Courtesy of CNN.

Although the case doesn’t overtly change any policy, the unanimous decision in favor of Officer Saylor preserves the precedence set by previous cases in terms of tribal and indigenous authority and native land and reservations.

Image Courtesy of Indian Country Today.

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