DOCKET NO.: 77-836
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
CITATION: 437 US 634 (1978)
ARGUED: Apr 19, 1978
DECIDED: Jun 23, 1978
Carl F. Andre – for the State of Mississippi
H. Bartow Farr, III – for the United States
Richard B. Collins – for Smith John and Harry Smith John
Facts of the case
Media for United States v. John
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 23, 1978 in United States v. John
Warren E. Burger:
The judgments and opinions of the Court in United States against John and the related case, John against Mississippi will be announced by Mr. Justice Blackmun.
Harry A. Blackmun:
These two related cases come to us respectively from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans and from the Supreme Court of the state of Mississippi.
They present issues concerning state and federal jurisdiction over certain crimes allegedly committed by an Indian within the area designated as a reservation for the Choctaws who reside in Central Mississippi.
The technical question is whether the lands are Indian country, as that phrase is defined the criminal code and as it is used in what is called the Major Crimes Act of 1885 and secondarily, the issue was whether if the lands are Indian country, the federal statutes operate to preclude the exercise of state criminal jurisdiction over the offense.
In October 1975, Smith John, a Choctaw was indicted by a federal grand jury for assault with intent to kill.
He was convicted of simple assault and received a sentence of 90 days and a fine.
On appeal the Fifth Circuit reversed, it ruled that a federal trial court was without jurisdiction over the case because the place where the alleged assault took place was not Indian country and therefore there was no basis for federal jurisdiction.
A little while after the federal indictment, Smith John was also indicted by a Mississippi state grand jury for aggravated assault upon the same victim.
The incident was the same as the one to which the federal indictment related.
There was a motion to dismiss on the ground that the federal jurisdiction was exclusive and that motion was denied.
The defendant was then convicted in the state court and this time received a sentence of two years in the penitentiary.
On appeal, the Supreme Court of Missouri held as had the federal appellate court that the federal trial court had no jurisdiction to prosecute and neither that Mississippi court did.
In an opinion filed today, we attempt to trace the very interesting history of the Mississippi Choctaws and their dealings with the United States government from the time of the revolutionary war down to the present time.
We conclude that the lands designated as reservation in Central Mississippi is indeed Indian country as defined in the federal statutes and that as a consequence those statutes make an Indian who commits certain specified offenses within Indian country, is subject to the laws within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States.
Neither the fact that the Choctaws in Mississippi are merely a remnant of the much larger group, one of the five civilized tribes that went or were moved to what is now Oklahoma, nor the fact that federal supervision over them has not been continuous throughout the years, affects the federal power to deal with them under these statutes.
And thus we conclude that the federal prosecution of a Choctaw for assault with intent to kill occurring on the lands in question is proper and that Mississippi had no power similarly the prosecuting for the same events.
And thus the judgment of the Mississippi Supreme Court is reversed and the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals is also reversed and that case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with the opinion filed today.
Warren E. Burger:
Thank you, Mr. Justice Blackmun.