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Supreme Court Case Raises Questions About Tribal Convictions

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether federal felony charges can be filed against defendants who were previously convicted of multiple domestic violence counts in tribal courts that didn't provide attorneys.

The case set to be heard Tuesday marks a critical test for tribal courts — particularly those without the money to hire public defenders — at a time when Congress has begun broadening federal authority to prosecute violent crimes in Indian Country.

In domestic violence cases, a decade-old law has sought to combat high assault rates on reservations by transferring cases involving offenders with multiple convictions to the federal courts for possible stiffer punishments.

That statute is being challenged on the contention that defendants must be guaranteed counsel in tribal courts if their cases are ultimately grounds for stiffer penalties in U.S. courts.

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