Two Iowa Supreme Court appeals challenge State jurisdiction on Tama Indian Settlement

by Rox Laird | July 13, 2021

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear appeals in the coming term on the question of whether the State of Iowa or the federal government has jurisdiction over two criminal cases involving Native American members of the Tama Indian Settlement in Tama County.

The cases are State v. Bear (20-0401) and State v. Cungtion (20-0409). (Go to On Brief’s Cases in the Pipeline page to read the briefs filed in these cases under the “Screened for Supreme Court” tab.)

State v. Bear was originally scheduled to be submitted without oral argument in March but has been held over for the 2021-22 term that begins in September. The Court invited amicus briefs from the Meskwaki (also known as Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa), the United States government, and any other interested parties. Amici filers have until July 20 to file briefs with the Court.

Though the facts in each case differ, the underlying legal question is the same: Does the State of Iowa, or the U.S. Government, have jurisdiction over these criminal cases?

The State of Iowa had jurisdiction over criminal offenses committed “by or against Indians on the Sac and Fox Indian Reservation” under a statute enacted by Congress in 1948. Seventy years later, Congress repealed that statute effective Dec. 11, 2018, when it was signed into law, which returned jurisdiction over criminal offenses by or against Indians on the Tama Settlement to the federal government.

Hollis Bear, a Native American and resident of the Tama Indian Settlement, was convicted in Tama County District Court of domestic abuse assault causing bodily injury and criminal mischief. He argues the State’s charges against him should be dismissed because his case was pending when the 1948 statute was repealed and because the repeal should be applied retroactively.

Christopher Lee Cungtion Jr. makes the same argument in his appeal to the Supreme Court.

Cungtion pleaded guilty to charges of willful injury and other crimes against Indians in Tama County District Court and was granted a deferred judgment in November 2018. The deferred judgment was subsequently revoked for parole violations. Cungtion argues that the State had jurisdiction when the trial court entered the deferred judgment in 2018 but not when it was revoked after the 1948 jurisdiction statute was repealed. Thus, he asks the Supreme Court to remand his case for dismissal.

The state argues in both cases that Congress’s repeal of the 1948 statute does not have retroactive effect and did not strip the State’s jurisdiction in Meskwaki cases that were ongoing proceedings at the time of repeal.


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