Frontier Justice, Revisited

Frontier Justice

illustration by Blair Kelly

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Eavesdrop on a gathering of rural attorneys in a state with a sizable Native American population and you’re likely to hear horror stories about how ignorant colleagues failed to understand the discrepancies inherent in Indian law, which is based on the precept that state and local law have no force, while federal law is enforceable, but not absolute. The terrain is so foreign, according to High Country News (Sept. 17, 2007), that a number of lawyers refuse cases for fear of malpractice claims, while confusion over jurisdiction often leads to inappropriate civil suits that end up being dismissed. To remedy the situation in Washington, the 2007 class of graduating law students was the first in state history to be tested on Indian law. New Mexico mandated similar tests in 2002, South Dakota passed a similar measure this year, and Arizona, California, Montana, and Idaho are also looking to raise the bar.