Two Supreme Court Cases Could Affect Victims of Violence

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases with implications for victims of domestic and sexual violence: Patrick Kennedy v. State of Louisiana; and Plains Commerce Bank v. Long Family Land & Cattle Co. Rulings are expected in both cases later this year.

Patrick Kennedy v. State of Louisiana

Since 1964, only people convicted of murder have been executed in the United States. In 1977, the Supreme Court prohibited the death penalty in cases where an adult is raped. In Patrick Kennedy v. State of Louisiana, the Court may decide whether a person who rapes a child also can be sentenced to death.

In 1998, Patrick Kennedy was convicted of the brutal rape of his then-eight-year-old stepdaughter. Court documents reveal that the child required surgery as a result of the assault. Louisiana is one of five states that have adopted laws allowing executions of people who rape children, and in 2004 Kennedy was sentenced to death. Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas have similar laws on the books, and other states are considering them. In this case, the Supreme Court may decide whether those state laws can stand.

Over the past several decades, the Supreme Court has interpreted society’s “evolving standards of decency” to limit use of the death penalty, removing juveniles, people with mental retardation, and adult rapists from death rows. Louisiana officials argue that the same “evolving standards of decency” that tightened restrictions for sentencing a person to death also dictate harsher punishment for criminals who violate children.

A coalition of violence prevention experts, service providers and social workers is asking the Court to disallow the use of the death penalty in cases of child rape, saying allowing executions of child rapists would compound the harm to the victim. The National Association of Social Workers and its Louisiana Chapter, Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault, National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and Texas Association Against Sexual Assault filed an amicus brief in support of Patrick Kennedy.

In the brief, they warn that allowing child rapists to be sentenced to death may discourage reporting because sexual assaults against children are often committed by family members or friends who would hesitate to turn in someone they know if doing so can result in that person being executed.

The brief also warns that equalizing penalties for child rape and murder may encourage abusers to kill their victims.

The groups also argue that, “The trauma caused by the extensive trial process itself and the prolonged notoriety the case will generate will be even more severe and long-lasting, greatly hindering the healing process” for the victim. It continues, “Imposing the same penalty for child rape as for murder will signal to child rape victims that society believes them to be as irreparably harmed as murder victims.”

To read the brief, visit

Plains Commerce Bank v. Long Family Land & Cattle Co.

Plains Commerce Bank v. Long Family Land & Cattle Co. reviews tribal court jurisdiction concerning non-Indians entering into consensual relationships with Indians on reservation land. Although the case concerns a business dispute, advocates fear that the Supreme Court’s decision could broadly undermine tribal authority over perpetrators of domestic violence.

Many non-Indians live on reservation land and have consensual domestic relations with Native women who live in tribal communities. Some commit domestic violence. Indian tribes lack criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians and rely on their civil authority to protect women and girls. This civil authority is especially critical when the nearest state court sits hundreds of miles from the homes and communities where victims live.

Fifty organizations, including Sacred Circle, the National Resource Center to End Violence Against Native Women and the Family Violence Prevention Fund, filed an amicus brief designed to inform the Supreme Court of the broad unintended consequences this case may have, and what is at stake regarding the safety of Indian women.

Thirty members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians attended the oral arguments, to underscore their concern about how the ruling will affect the safety of Native women. Terri Henry, Principal Director of Clan Star, Inc., said, “It is well documented that Native women are victims of violence at far greater rates than any other populations of women in the United States. Violence committed by non-Indians against Native women is a national crisis. This case threatens to remove the only legal protection Native women have.”

To read the brief, visit

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