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Iowa Justices Hear A Case Questioning Jurisdiction On Tribal Land

John Pemble/IPR file photo
Iowa Public Radio
State and federal attorneys argued before the Iowa Supreme Court that the state should be able to prosecute crimes on tribal land committed by people who are not tribal members.

State and federal attorneys want the Iowa Supreme Court to reverse a Tama County magistrate judge’s decision to dismiss a set of criminal charges because they occurred on tribal land. In oral arguments Wednesday, they argued a law passed by Congress last year does not entirely eliminate the state’s jurisdiction on the Meskwaki Settlement in eastern Iowa as the judge ruled.

The case involves charges filed against Jennifer Stanton after she was arrested in December 2018 at the Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel for trespassing, possessing drug paraphernalia and violating a no-contact order. The charges came after Congress repealed a 1948 law which had given the state of Iowa authority to prosecute crimes committed on the Meskwaki Settlement, including crimes allegedly committed by tribal members.

Magistrate Richard Vander Mey ruled that when the state’s jurisdiction over tribal members on tribal land was repealed, it extended to non-members on land owned by the tribe.

“It’s pretty strong language in the repealing act,” Stanton’s attorney John Daufeldt told the justices. “It says jurisdiction ceases for the state.”

Ann O'Connell Adams, an attorney for the federal argument, said that’s a misinterpretation of the law. She said the repeal gives federal prosecutors jurisdiction over federal crimes on tribal land, while giving the Meskwaki tribe authority over other crimes involving members of the tribe. But, she said, it still carves out a role for the state.

“Congress did not intend to change the jurisdiction on a crime such as this, where a tribal officer presents charges involving a non-Indian to a state court,” Adams said. “If it’s only non-Indians involved in the crime that takes place, the state has exclusive jurisdiction over those crimes.”

Attorneys for the Meskwaki Nation filed a brief in the case siding with the state and arguing that, if the lower court decision is upheld, it would allow “lawlessness” by non-tribal members on tribal land.  

“If the decision of the magistrate is allowed to stand it will create a class of criminal offenses on the Meskwaki Settlement over which no government will have criminal jurisdiction,” the brief stated.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa