US v Sandoval

Precedent and decision-making in U.S. v. Sandoval

Precedent and decision-making in U.S. v. Sandoval

by Lillian Jamison-Cash -
Number of replies: 0

Writing about Ex parte Crow Dog, Sidney Harring (1994) argued that rather than relying on a legal code or some unifying sense of morality, United States laws and court decisions are based on national interest. This provides an illuminating framework to view the contradictory cases of U.S. v. Joseph (1876) and the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, and U.S. v. Sandoval (1913). With the incorporation of New Mexico as a state in 1912, the federal government could have relied on three different precedents: 1) the status of other Indians in already-incorporated states; 2) the status of Pueblo Indians as wards under Spanish rule; 3) the status of Pueblo Indians as equal citizens under Mexican law. Essentially, the Sandoval court used the second to justify its treatment of Indians as the first. In so doing, the Court ignored the most recent political precedent of Pueblo Indians (Mexican citizens) and used a racist and antiquated classification (wards of the Spanish monarchy) to justify their pupilage under the U.S. federal government. It might have been just as logical for the Sandoval court to base its decision on Pueblos’ precedent as citizens, upholding the Nonintercourse Act. It would not have been contradictory for the Court to treat the Pueblos differently from other tribes, given the U.S.’s long history of discriminating against some tribes differently than others. Since New Mexico was a brand-new state, this actually could have served as an opportunity to set a new precedent for dealing with tribes on a nation-to-nation basis, for which there was actually already precedent (U.S. v. Joseph (1876)).

Instead of considering Pueblos as sovereign political entities, or even the Court’s own precedent, the Sandoval decision relies on 1) the Commerce Clause (which is limited and weak in scope) and 2) the “unbroken current of judicial decisions [which] have attributed to the United States as a superior and civilized nation the power and the duty of exercising a fostering care and protection over all dependent Indian communities within its borders…” (U.S. v. Sandoval (1913), p. 5). It also bases its decision on racist anecdotes about the “primitive” lifestyle of Pueblo Indians, using that as evidence of their dependency. The Court also employs the ethnocentric idea of the primacy of private property: even though the Spanish and Mexican governments and the Treaty of Guadeloupe-Hidalgo granted Pueblo Indians land rights, and even though Pueblos held these lands in fee-simple title, the Court discounted these rights because the title was communal (U.S. v. Sandoval (1913), p. 6).

Essentially, Pueblo Indians are grouped with other American Indian tribes racially, rather than politically. Washing over their political and historical differences in this way leads to an (ironically) equal inequality and blow to sovereignty for all Indian tribes.