For a long time, Indian Americans living in Oklahoma were subject to state jurisdiction and were not given the power to operate their own court system within their communities. This was made worse by federal policy that weakened the tribal court system and failed to provide funding for tribal courts and the Court of Indian Offenses (CFR Courts).
However, following a string of decisions and affirmations by the Supreme Court, sovereignty has been restored to tribal courts in Oklahoma, and Indian American people living within the boundaries of their land are entitled to get their cases heard according to their own laws and principles. As a result, the court system has had to adjust to this shift in criminal jurisdiction and ensure that Indian American people are not wrongfully charged by the state legal system.
Many different types of cases are heard in tribal courts, including civil, criminal, domestic, and family law issues. If you have been charged with a crime in a tribal court or are facing a family law or civil issue, it is important that you seek help from an attorney licensed to practice tribal law and that has the right experience to help you with your case.
The tribal law attorneys at Palmer Law have significant experience handling tribal cases and we have an in-depth knowledge of the different legal systems of tribes such as the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee Nation, and more. Our managing attorney Lloyd Brent Palmer is a Native American Veteran who is a charter member of the Chickasaw Warrior Society. Our law firm has the experience that you need to fight for your rights and ensure that you get the best outcome for your case.
What Are Tribal Courts?
Distinct from the Oklahoma state courts, tribal courts are independent tribal justice systems that operate within Native American land. These courts apply a system of tribal laws that are distinct from state laws and statutes and federal regulations. As such, the penalties for crimes may differ vastly from standard sentencing guidelines. Tribal courts have jurisdiction over Indian affairs that happen within the Indian country and receive funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The laws that are applied in tribal courts stem from the Indian Civil Rights Act, tribal constitutions, federal Indian law, and tribal court judgments. Independent tribal courts have jurisdiction over civil cases involving Native and Non-Native American people, criminal matters stemming from tribal criminal jurisdiction involving Native American tribes, and domestic cases such as child custody, marriage, adoption, divorces, etc.
In Oklahoma, there are 39 federally recognized Indian tribes. Each of these tribes has its own system of tribal laws and a tribal government. As such, there is a different tribal court for each different tribe with different laws and jurisdiction. Some of these tribes include Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Seminole, Cherokee, Citizen Potawatomi, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. All recognized tribes have sovereign tribal jurisdiction.
When a tribe does not establish its own justice system, the Court of Indian Offences (CFR Courts) will provide a court on behalf of the tribe. CFR courts are controlled by the Code of Federal Regulations however it still adopts Tribal Code and customs. These courts generally deal with civil matters involving Native and Non-Native American people, and misdemeanor criminal cases involving Native American tribes.
What Kind of Cases Are Heard in Tribal Court?
Tribal courts in Oklahoma deal with many different types of issues involving tribal members. Tribal court jurisdiction includes almost all criminal and civil matters, and can also deal with commercial law matters between tribal members. Generally, any issues that fall under tribal jurisdiction will be dealt with in a tribal court. It is important that you hire an attorney that has an in-depth knowledge of tribal law and experience handling cases in a tribal court.
Tribal courts deal with most criminal matters that happen between tribal members on tribal lands. The courts in some cases have criminal jurisdiction to deal with crimes committed by non-Indian people on Indian land however this jurisdiction has been limited since the Supreme Court case of Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta. Because of this limitation, the state court will mostly deal with criminal cases involving Non-Indian individuals on native land.
Criminal cases are dealt with using federal regulations, statutes dealing with Indian offenses, and the Indian Civil Rights Act. The punishments for criminal offenses in tribal courts vary and could include imprisonment, fines, and labor. Tribal courts are generally restricted to trying misdemeanor crimes among Indian people and more serious crimes are generally dealt with by the federal court.
Family Law Matters
Most family law cases are dealt with by tribal courts including child custody proceedings, marriage issues, divorce, child support, and related family law issues. Some tribal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over matters such as divorce and child custody, and there will usually be a Judge presiding over these cases to make a decision. Family law cases follow tribal laws and principles of the Oklahoma Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).
If you need help with a family law matter in a tribal court, it is important that you hire an attorney with requisite experience handling tribal family law cases. The lawyers at Palmer Law have significant experience handling family law issues
Oklahoma Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)
The Oklahoma Indian Child Welfare Act was introduced to protect Native American children and to preserve and protect Indian families. The federal government introduced this act after the discovery that Native American children were being removed from their homes by state authorities and put into foster care at a much higher rate than Non-Indian children.
Under this act, jurisdiction is given to tribal courts for child custody proceedings, birth parents are given priority in relation to adoption issues, and measures are put in place to prevent unnecessary separation of families. The top aim of this act is to ensure that Indian families are not broken up because of inherent biases within the state system when it comes to Native American children. It aims to protect parental rights and ensure that child custody issues are fair and balanced.
Tribal court systems in Oklahoma generally have jurisdiction to deal with civil cases involving Indian people on Indian land. Typical civil cases that arise in tribal court proceedings include land issues, business disputes, and child custody issues. In relation to independent tribal courts, the civil jurisdiction extends to Non-Native individuals who live or carry out business on tribal land. With a Court of Indian Offenses or CFR court, civil litigation generally only includes Indian people living on Indian land.
Do Tribal Courts Have Exclusive Jurisdiction over Criminal Matters Oklahoma?
The issue of whether state courts have jurisdiction to charge Native American people with crimes committed on their land has been a huge issue for many Indian Americans in Oklahoma. Previously, state and tribal courts had the ability to charge and prosecute Native American people accused of committing crimes on tribal lands. For these communities, the ability to have sovereignty over legal and government issues within their communities has been repeatedly challenged by Oklahoma state authorities.
However, in 2020, the United States Supreme Court in the decision of McGirt v Oklahoma held that Oklahoma state courts lack jurisdiction to try criminal matters in Indian Country when it relates to Native American people. This decision was a major victory for Indian people living in Oklahoma as it was the first time the Supreme Court had given proper consideration to the legal rights of tribes to be sovereign and operate court systems separate from the state judicial system.
The Supreme Court held that if a Native American person commits a crime on native land, they must be charged by the respective tribal court. However, if a crime was committed by a Non-Indian against an Indian person, the state courts may be able to prosecute them. To be prosecuted in a tribal court, an individual must be a member of a tribe, have tribal blood, and have allegedly committed the crime within tribal land. As such, when it comes to criminal jurisdiction, the ability to charge and prosecute individuals is given exclusively to tribal courts and federal courts.
Can Native Americans Go To Federal Courts?
Although tribal courts have jurisdiction over most criminal matters that happen within the Indian country between tribal members, the federal court still reserves the right to prosecute individuals suspected of committing major federal crimes. The Major Crimes Act outlines that the federal government can charge Native Americans with crimes such as murder, manslaughter, crimes against minors, kidnapping, sex crimes, and other major crimes.
If you are charged with a federal crime, you can still face separate charges by Native American tribal courts. This system of concurrent jurisdiction allows individuals to be tried for the same crime twice under two separate legal systems. The laws and penalties you will be subjected to are different in each court, as tribal courts follow tribal law and federal courts follow federal regulations and statutes.
Being charged with a federal crime can have serious consequences. Federal courts follow a separate legal system from state and tribal courts. These authorities have a significant amount of resources that can be used to charge and prosecute individuals suspected of crimes. They may have a separate investigative team, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and investigative tools such as undercover agents and wiretapping. As such, when they bring charges against an individual, they usually have a strong case built up to secure a conviction.
If you are facing federal charges as an American Indian in Oklahoma, you should get legal representation from an attorney that understands your unique situation. At Palmer Law, we have significant experience with tribal and federal law and our managing attorney, Lloyd Brent Palmer is an enrolled citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. We have helped many clients fight federal cases by negotiating a fair plea bargain or bringing the case to trial when necessary.
How Can a Tribal Lawyer Help Me?
If you have an upcoming case in a tribal court, it is strongly advised that you seek legal assistance. Decisions of a tribal court are as equally binding as a state court, meaning that if you are convicted of a crime or if a family law order is made against you, you will be required to carry out the court’s requirements. By hiring a lawyer that has experience dealing with tribal law issues, you can ensure that your legal rights are protected and that you get the best outcome for your case.
A tribal lawyer can help you by doing the following:
- Advise you on the law, explain the consequences of being convicted of a criminal charge, and ensure that you understand the legal process.
- Speak with the prosecutor on your behalf to get a fair plea deal or get your charges thrown out.
- Investigate your case and build up a strong criminal defense on your behalf.
- Help you draft up a family law arrangement, such as a divorce decree, child custody arrangement, or child support document.
- Fight for you in a trial court or civil matter to ensure that your rights are protected.
Your attorney can help ensure that you are fully informed going through the process and help advise you on tribal laws and statutes to ensure that you understand completely. Not all Oklahoman attorneys are qualified to practice law in tribal courts so it is important that you contact an attorney that has the experience necessary.
Tribal Court Lawyers at Palmer Law
At Palmer Law, we are proud to be highly experienced in many aspects of tribal law and to offer you help with any issue you need. Our managing attorney, Lloyd Brent Palmer is an enrolled citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and has significant experience handling cases in tribal courts. He has a high degree of Choctaw Heritage in his family and he is qualified to handle cases in many tribes in Oklahoma, including Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Seminole, Cherokee, Citizen Potawatomi, and Cheyenne and Arapaho.
In addition to being skilled at handling tribal matters, our lawyers have been handling criminal, federal, family law, civil, and divorce matters for many years. As such, we have a wide range of experience that extends across many practice areas. We will use our experience and skills to help protect your rights and ensure that you get the best outcome for your case. Our top priority is ensuring that you feel confident navigating your case in a tribal court and that you are able to feel confident with any criminal or family law matter that you are faced with.
Call Palmer Law Firm Today!
Each tribal court in Oklahoma has a sovereign legal system that follows its own sets of rules and regulations in relation to criminal, civil, and family law matters. Hiring a lawyer that understands these legal systems and can offer you help that is specific to your case is extremely important when dealing with the tribal court.
If you are facing a criminal, civil, or family law issue in a tribal court in Oklahoma, you should Call Palmer Law today. Our law office has unique legal experience handling tribal cases and our lawyers have helped many Indian Americans with their cases in a tribal court. We understand the unique issues faced by American Indian people with their legal affairs, and we want to be your strong advocate. Our law office offers a free consultation for you to come in and speak with our lawyers with no strings attached.