Plenary Power, Political Questions, and Sovereignty in Indian Affairs


A generation of Indian law scholars has roundly, and rightly, criticized the Supreme Court’s invocation of the political question and plenary power doctrines to deprive tribes of meaningful judicial review when Congress has acted to the tribes’ detriment. Courts have applied these doctrines in tandem so as to frequently leave tribes without meaningful judicial recourse against breaches of the federal trust responsibility or intrusions upon tribal interests and sovereignty. For example, courts consider congressional abrogation of a treaty a political question beyond the reach of the judiciary. At the same time, challenges to the inherent, or aboriginal, authority of tribes are deemed justiciable. The Court’s inconsistent approach represents a kind of “heads I win; tails you lose” application of the political question and plenary power doctrines in Indian affairs.

This Article proposes that, rather than facing a rigged coin toss in the courts, tribes should be able to avail themselves of the political question and plenary power doctrines to have Congress, rather than the courts, decide questions of inherent tribal authority. Under current precedent, the Court has aggrandized its own power in Indian affairs through the theory of implicit divestiture, which holds that the judiciary may find tribes divested of inherent powers even without congressional action. This Article argues that the questions of whether inherent tribal authority endures, and which sovereign powers tribes can exercise, should be political rather than judicial. This Article challenges long-held assumptions about these fundamental doctrines of federal Indian law and poses important questions about the role of the courts and Congress and about the future of inherent tribal sovereignty.

About the Author

Associate Professor, Brigham Young University Law

By uclalaw