August 24, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Tribal Exhaustion Rule Applies to 25 U.S.C. § 1303 Habeas Petitions

The Tenth Circuit issued its opinion in Valenzuela v. Silversmith on Wednesday, November 14, 2012.

Alvin Valenzuela, an enrolled member of the Tohono O’odham Nation (the Nation) accepted a plea agreement in which he waived his right to appeal his conviction and sentences. He later filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 25 U.S.C. § 1303 seeking relief from tribal court convictions and his sentence. Section 1303 is part of the Indian Civil Rights Act. While Valenzuela’s petition was pending in federal district court, he completed his sentence and was released from prison. The district court concluded that Valenzuela’s claims were moot because of his release. Alternatively, it concluded that Valenzuela had failed to exhaust his tribal remedies before seeking habeas relief in federal court. Based on these alternative grounds, the district court dismissed Mr. Valenzuela’s § 1303 petition.

The Tenth Circuit chose to decide the appeal on the threshold, nonmerits issue of his failure to exhaust tribal remedies, rather than on the grounds of mootness. This allowed the court to avoid deciding whether it had subject matter jurisdiction and “difficult issues such as whether tribal court convictions are entitled to a presumption of collateral consequences and whether federal courts have authority under 25 U.S.C. § 1303 to vacate tribal court convictions.”

Valenzuela argued that § 1303 does not require exhaustion in the tribal courts. The court disagreed. While § 1303 does not explicitly state exhaustion is required, the tribal exhaustion rule applies to § 1303 petitions. The rule “provides that, absent exceptional circumstances, federal courts typically should abstain from hearing cases that challenge tribal court [authority] until tribal court remedies, including tribal appellate review, are exhausted.”

The court also found that because Valenzuela’s appeal waiver did not expressly waive his right to collaterally attack his conviction in tribal court, he had failed to exhaust his tribal court remedies by not filing a habeas petition in that court. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal and remanded for that court to dismiss it without prejudice.