United States v. Bryant - Oral Argument - April 19, 2016

United States v. Bryant

Media for United States v. Bryant

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 13, 2016 in United States v. Bryant

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 19, 2016 in United States v. Bryant

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

We'll hear argument first this morning in Case 15-420, United States v. Bryant. Ms. Prelogar.

Elizabeth Prelogar:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: Congress enacted Section 117 in response to the epidemic of domestic violence in Indian Country. The Ninth Circuit was wrong to strike down the statute as applied to offenders like Respondent who have abused and battered their intimate partners again and again, but whose tribal-court misdemeanor convictions were uncounseled and resulted in a sentence of imprisonment. The Ninth Circuit's constitutional analysis disconnects the validity of the underlying prior conviction from the permissibility of relying on those convictions to prove the defendant's recidivist status if he commits additional criminal conduct.

And that runs counter to this Court's precedence. In Nichols v. United States, this Court held that a conviction that was uncounseled but was valid at the time it was obtained remains valid when it's used in a subsequent prosecution to classify the defendant as a recidivist.

As I understand the Court's logic in that opinion, the rationale was that in the absence of an actual Sixth Amendment violation in the underlying proceeding, there's no proceeding in which the defendant had but was denied a right to counsel. He didn't -- he has a right to counsel in the subsequent Federal prosecution, and here, Respondent had that right and it was respected.

He was -- he was represented by appointed counsel at every critical stage.

But when a defendant doesn't have a right to counsel in the prior proceedings that resulted in that conviction, then there's no defect, no constitutional defect in those underlying convictions that can possibly be carried over or exacerbated through reliance on those convictions in the subsequent proceeding. Now, the Ninth Circuit reasoned, and Respondent's arguing here, that that might apply when the conviction is -- is valid under the Court's rationale in Scott.

There, of course, the Court held that there's no right to appointed counsel in a proceeding that doesn't result in imprisonment.

And Respondent urges the Court to limit Nichols to that situation, where you have a defendant who -- who wasn't imprisoned in the prior proceeding. But I don't think that makes sense as a matter of the logic under this Court's decision in -- in Nichols, nor do I think it makes sense as a matter of practical reality. Here, for example, Respondent says that if only his Tribal Court had sentenced him to a fine rather than to imprisonment, there would be no constitutional infirmity with relying on those convictions in his Section 117 prosecution. But I can't fathom why it is that the Tribal Court's sentencing determination would make any difference with respect to the validity of those convictions or the permissibility of using them to identify the defendant as among those class of individuals who are properly --

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Suppose you had a conviction from a foreign country.

Would that -- could that be used for this purpose, assuming the statute allowed it?

Elizabeth Prelogar:

I don't think that there would be any Sixth Amendment problem if Congress chose --

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Would there be a due process problem?

Elizabeth Prelogar:

I think it -- I think that it would raise a more serious due process issue, but I think that there are --

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Why more serious --

Elizabeth Prelogar:

Because --

Anthony M. Kennedy:

-- in England?

Elizabeth Prelogar:

Well, I think that it would be incumbent on a defendant in that situation to try to come forward and make a showing that that foreign conviction was obtained in a proceeding that wasn't fundamentally fair.

Tribal courts, I think, are fundamentally different, Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Could that showing be attempted in a case like this?

Elizabeth Prelogar:

In a Section 117 prosecution? So that raises the question whether there should be a right to have a collateral challenge to a particular conviction.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

I -- are foreign judgments -- are foreign convictions -- I thought it had to be a Federal, State or a tribal court.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

I'm assuming the statute was amended.

Elizabeth Prelogar:

That's correct.

So -- so just to clarify, it's true, Justice Ginsburg, that Section 117 doesn't cover foreign convictions.

And I understood Justice Kennedy to be asking whether there would be a constitutional problem if it did. To the extent that this Court would perceive the need to recognize an as-applied due-process challenge to a foreign conviction, I think tribal convictions are very differently situated. And here's why.

Tribal convictions aren't rendered wholly outside the auspices of our Federal system or Federal review.

Congress has plenary authority in this area, and it's acted.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Well, it's certainly rendered outside the Constitution.

Elizabeth Prelogar:

It's true that the Constitution doesn't govern tribal court proceedings, but Congress has plenary authority, and those proceedings are governed by Federal law through the Indian Civil Rights Act.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

So this case would come out differently if Congress had not enacted the Indian Civil Rights Act?