Through most of its history, the U.S. Federal Government maintained nearly exclusive
jurisdiction over Indian affairs within the United States. See Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S.
(6 Pet.) 515 (1832). As part of its “termination” policy during the 1950s, however, Congress
enacted what is known as Public Law 280 (PL 280).
Through this legislation, Congress relinquished extensive federal jurisdiction to five states
over all Indian country within their borders. 67 Stat. 588. One of these five states was
Although Congress largely abandoned the assimilationist “termination” policy after the
1950s, PL 280 continues to affect jurisdiction dramatically in the states where it applies,
PL 280 states may enforce their regular criminal laws inside Indian country, and may
adjudicate civil controversies arising in Indian country. PL 280 states to not have the right,
though, to alter, encumber, or tax any personal property in Indian country, including water
Tribes in PL 280 states retain their sovereign immunity. They also retain their trust
relationship with the Federal Government, which protects their tribal land bases, and
through which they receive certain federal services to which they are entitled. Additionally,
tribes in PL 280 states continue to receive benefits pursuant to effective federal treaties.
When PL 280 was enacted, neither the tribes nor the states were happy with it. Tribes were
unhappy that the law imposed state jurisdiction upon them without their even having been
asked, and saw the extension of state jurisdiction under PL 280 as a possible first step
back to the policy of “termination.”
The states objected that the law required them to assume additional law enforcement
duties in Indian country without letting them tax Indian people to pay for it, and without
receiving federal funds to cover those costs.
In 1968, Congress amended PL 280 when it enacted the Indian Civil Rights Act. The
amendments allow PL 280 states to return jurisdiction over Indian country to the federal
government if they so desire. This is known as "retrocession." The amendments also
provide that no additional states may assume jurisdiction over Indian country without tribal
The fact that PL 280 states are tasked with law enforcement, but lack authority to raise
taxes to pay for it, has often resulted in lax enforcement in Indian country in those states.
This is ironic given that one of the main reasons Congress enacted PL 280 was because
some non-Indians felt law enforcement was lax on and near Indian reservations.
|These contents are for general education
and are not to be construed as legal advice.