NIWRC Celebrates SCOTUS Ruling Affirming Tribal Sovereignty in Denezpi

(WASHINGTON, D.C., June 13, 2022)—Today the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Denezpi v. United States, affirming the inherent right of the Ute Mountain Ute to exercise its sovereignty and protect its women and children from domestic violence and sexual assault, regardless of whether such violent acts are prosecuted in a Court of Federal Offenses (“CFR”) or a tribal court. Following his prosecution in the Ute Mountain Ute’s CFR Court, defendant Merle Denezpi was subsequently prosecuted in federal court. Denezpi argued in his briefs and before the Court that the Double Jeopardy Clause in the U.S. Constitution prevented the United States from prosecuting him for his commission of sexual assault because he was previously prosecuted in the Tribe’s CFR Court—and that this Court exercises federal and not tribal authority.

In opposition to Denezpi and in support of the United States as Respondent in the case, the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC) through its VAWA Sovereignty Initiative, along with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), filed an amicus brief arguing that under the “separate sovereigns doctrine,” Denezpi’s dual prosecutions did not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause because CFR Courts are tribal courts, exercising tribal, and not federal, authority.

“We are pleased today that the Supreme Court affirmed the inherent right of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe to implement their sovereign laws to prosecute an offender who attacked a Native woman on the Tribe’s own lands,” said Lucy Simpson, Diné, NIWRC Executive Director. “Tribal Nations have the right to exercise their own inherent authority to prosecute crimes committed against women and children, regardless of whether they utilize a CFR court or their own tribal court, and the SCOTUS decision today ensures that tribal prosecutions for such horrific conduct will not be precluded by such meaningless technicalities.”

The core of the case deals with the inherent right of Tribal Nations to protect women and children on tribal lands. As Justice Amy Coney Barrett, writing for the majority, noted:

A violation of the tribal code lies at the heart of this case. Merle Denezpi and V. Y., both members of the Navajo Nation, traveled to Towaoc, Colorado, a town within the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. While the two were alone at a house belonging to Denezpi’s friend, Denezpi barricaded the door, threatened V. Y., and forced her to have sex with him. After Denezpi fell asleep, V. Y. escaped from the house and reported Denezpi to tribal authorities. An officer with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs filed a criminal complaint in CFR court. That complaint charged Denezpi with three crimes: assault and battery, in violation of 6 Ute Mountain Ute Code §2 (1988); terroristic threats, in violation of 25 CFR §11.402; and false imprisonment, in violation of 25 CFR §11.404.

“Native women suffer the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in the United States today,” said Sarah Deer, Muscogee Nation, co-author of the NIWRC and NCAI amicus brief. “As we explained in our brief, a decision concluding that the Double Jeopardy Clause precludes a prosecution in federal court by the United States attorney if and when it follows a prosecution under tribal law in a CFR Court for the same conduct would have resulted in fewer prosecutions of violent crimes against Native women and children and would have only increased violence in Indian country. We are thankful the Court understood this connection and affirmed tribal sovereignty.”

“The significance of today’s victory cannot be underestimated,” said Mary Kathryn Nagle, Cherokee Nation, co-author of the NIWRC and NCAI amicus brief. “This is the first decision in federal Indian law we have seen authored by Justice Barrett, one of the most recent Justices to join the Supreme Court. Justice Barrett’s majority decision acknowledges that the sovereignty of our Tribal Nations pre-dates the United States, and furthermore, that the right of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe to outlaw sexual assault constitutes an inherent right the Tribe enjoys as a sovereign government.”