Reflections on Justice Kennedy’s Indian Law Legacy

Written by: Matthew Fletcher

Primary Source : Turtle Talk, June 29, 2018

My most enduring memory of Justice Kennedy is no doubt watching him lean over the bench, red faced and angry, screaming/yelling/lecturing at Neal Katyal during the Dollar General oral argument. I concluded then, if I hadn’t already before that moment from his writings, that Justice Kennedy was so disturbed by tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians and non-Indian businesses that he angrily wanted to protect a non-Indian sexual predator from the horror of being subject to a tort claim in tribal court.

Justice Kennedy was confirmed for SCOTUS in 1988. His first vote in an Indian law case was in Oklahoma Tax Commission v. Graham. His last vote in an Indian law case was in the Upper Skagit matter (he recused in the culverts case). During his tenure, tribal interests cleanly won 15 cases and cleanly lost 40 cases. There were two cases in which there were two or more issues in which tribal interests won and lost. There were three cases decided by 4-4 tie votes (including one which Kennedy was recused), and in which tribal interests had prevailed below. There were two non-criminal cases in which the interests of individual Indians were at play, making it difficult to declare it a clean win or loss for tribal interests. There was one case the Court remanded (not talking about Upper Skagit) without a clear winner. In short, it was/is a bad time for tribal interests — just under a 30 percent win rate for tribes, adding in the tie cases.

Justice Kennedy’s voting record was overwhelmingly oppositional to tribal interests. Kennedy voted cleanly in favor of tribal interests 11 times (and that includes Lara, in which he wrote a scathing opinion blasting tribal powers, and nearly half of those votes were in the past few years), and voted cleanly against tribal interests 45 times. There was one case where voted to split issues. We can and should presume he was an anti-tribal vote in both of the 4-4 tie cases (and would have been a deciding vote against the tribes and the US in the culverts case had he not recused). I count just under a 20 percent pro-tribal vote rate for Justice Kennedy.

Justice Kennedy wrote relatively few Indian law opinions, as few as Justice Scalia. It should be clear to observers that during this period, Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice Thomas, and junior justices carry the conservative side’s laboring oar in Indian law, not right wing stalwarts who write the federalism and anti-civil rights opinions.

The most important majority opinion Justice Kennedy wrote was Duro v. Reina, though Rice v. Cayetano comes in a close second. Duro really shouldn’t be considered an important opinion because it was so clearly wrong on so many levels Congress enacted a temporary Duro fix within weeks of its announcement, making the fix permanent within a year or so. Perhaps because the principles Justice Kennedy advanced in Duro were principles he had been working with in his own mind since at least the 1970s when he dissented as a Ninth Circuit judge in Oliphant [544_f.2d_1007] — this is America where Americans must consent to government and non-Indians cannot choose to be subject to tribal jurisdiction because they cannot be tribal citizens — he seemed to ache to have an opportunity to strike down the Duro fix. His concurring opinion in United States v. Laralays out how his consent theory would be enough to kill the Duro fix and all but asks the Court to seek a vehicle out for review, a vehicle that never came (sorry Russell Means, you shouldn’t have hired a lawyer). Maybe the biggest problem for Kennedy’s consent theory is that it’s completely farcical and simply not grounded in the Constitution or reality (try driving from Michigan to New Mexico just to vote, not that I would have voted for Gavin even if I could vote — go Deb Haaland!).

For all my criticism, I have a favorite Kennedy opinion, his lower court opinion in United States v. Finch [548_f.2d_822], a precursor to the Montana v. United States case in which SCOTUS held that the Crow Nation did not possess the Big Horn River. Kennedy wrote strongly in favor of the tribe’s ownership, guaranteed by treaty, an opinion that shows how completely misguided Justice Rehnquist’s Montana decision actually was. If he had been that judge during his tenure as a Supreme Court judge he’d be celebrated, even worshipped, by Indian country. Instead a collective “meh” upon his retirement, Indian country would be mourning the retirement of a great justice.


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Matthew Fletcher
Matthew L.M. Fletcher is Professor of Law at Michigan State University College of Law and Director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center. He is the Chief Justice of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians Supreme Court and also sits as an appellate judge for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, the Hoopa Valley Tribe, and the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians. He is a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, located in Peshawbestown, Michigan. In 2010, Professor Fletcher was elected to the American Law Institute.