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Public Law 280

Public Law 83- 280 (commonly referred to as Public Law 280 or PL 280) was a transfer of legal authority (jurisdiction) from the federal government to state governments which significantly changed the division of legal authority among tribal, federal, and state governments. Congress gave six states (five states initially - California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, and Wisconsin; and then Alaska upon statehood) extensive criminal and civil jurisdiction over tribal lands within the affected states (the so-called "mandatory states"). Public Law 280 also permitted the other states to acquire jurisdiction at their option. Public Law 280 has generally brought about:

  • an increased role for state criminal justice systems in "Indian country" (a term which is specifically defined in federal statutes),
  • a virtual elimination of the special federal criminal justice role (and a consequent diminishment of the special relationship between Indian Nations and the federal government),
  • numerous obstacles to individual Nations in their development of tribal criminal justice systems, and
  • an increased and confusing state role in civil related matters.

Public Law 280 is a complicated statute, which has been very controversial since the time of its enactment in 1953. It has often been misunderstood and misapplied by both federal and state governments. Moreover, the practical impact of Public Law 280 has often gone beyond that which was legally required, intended, and contemplated.

Consequently, Public Law 280 presents a series of important issues and concerns for Indian country crime victims and for those involved in assisting these crime victims – see Public Law 280: Issues and Concerns For Victims of Crime in Indian Country, by Ada Pecos Melton and Jerry Gardner

Questions and Answers About Public Law 280, by Carole Goldberg, is an article that provides answers to frequently asked questions about Public Law 280 - a federal statute enacted in 1953 which gave certain states jurisdiction in Indian country. Professor Goldberg has also set out the following overview of what Public Law 280 did and did not do.

What Public Law 280 DID DO on affected reservations:

  • Eliminated most federal Indian country criminal jurisdiction
  • Authorized state criminal jurisdiction -- broader scope than previous federal jurisdiction
  • Opened state civil courts to suits against Indians
  • After 1968, authorized retrocession upon state's request and DOI’s acceptance.
  • Pursuant to the Tribal Law and Order Act, authorized tribes to request that federal authorities reassume concurrent federal jurisdiction

What Public Law 280 did NOT DO:

  • Terminate tribes
  • Federal recognition maintained
  • Trust status of land maintained
  • Federal obligations to provide services maintained
  • Make state regulations applicable to Indians
  • Give the state taxing authority over Indians
  • Make county and city laws applicable to Indians
  • Abrogate tribes' federally protected hunting and fishing rights
  • Eliminate the tribes' civil and criminal jurisdiction

Concurrent Federal Jurisdiction under the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA)

The Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) was enacted on July 29, 2010, as Title II of Public Law 111-211. The purpose of TLOA is to help the Federal Government and tribal governments better address the unique public safety challenges that confront tribal communities. Section 221(b) of the new law, now codified at 18 U.S.C. 1162(d), permits an Indian tribe with Indian country subject to State criminal jurisdiction under Public Law 280 to request that the United States accept concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute violations of the General Crimes Act (18 U.S.C. 1152) and the Major Crimes Act (18 U.S.C. 1153) within that tribe's Indian country. To date, these tribes have been granted this request:

Public Law 280: Federal Resources

  • Report to the Congress on the Budgetary Cost Estimates of Tribal Courts in Public Law 83-280 States - On September 16, 2015 the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) issued this budgetary cost estimate for funding tribal courts located in Public Law 280 states, which have historically been either under-funded or not funded at all. The report offers a comprehensive estimate of budgetary costs for operating a tribal court. However, because, as the BIA notes, the BIA currently only funds non-PL 280 tribal courts at 6.14% of their needs, the report recommends funding PL 280 tribal courts at 6.14% of their needs, or $16.9 million. 
  • Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla & Cupeño Indians v. Jewell, 729 F.3d 1025 (2013) - In 2013, the Ninth Circuit held that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) did not violate the law when they declined to enter into a self-determination (638) contract with the Los Coyotes Tribe (a P.L. 280 tribe) to fund law enforcement on the Los Coyotes Reservation. The Ninth Circuit supported the BIA’s reasoning that since the BIA had never funded tribal law enforcement in the past, they were under no obligation to provide a 638 contract now.
  • The Office of Tribal Justice of the US Department of Justice issued a memo on November 9, 2000, entitled Concurrent Tribal Authority Under Public Law 83-280, and concluding that "Indian tribes retain concurrent criminal jurisdiction over Indians in P.L. 280 states. That is the shared view of Federal Government and the vast majority of courts that have directly considered the issue."
  • Public Law 280 and Law Enforcement in Indian Country—Research Priorities (December 2005) - Passed in 1953, Public Law 280 (PL 280) gave jurisdiction over criminal offenses involving Indians in Indian Country to certain States and allowed other States to assume jurisdiction Subsequent legislation allowed States to retrocede jurisdiction, which has occurred in some areas Some PL 280 reservations have experienced jurisdictional confusion, tribal discontent, and litigation, compounded by the lack of data on crime rates and law enforcement response. This National Institute of Justice Research in Brief summarizes the current status of PL 280 jurisdiction, identifies the key issues, and lists areas for further research and action.
  • Statement by President Dwight D. Eisenhower Upon Signing Bill Relating to State Jurisdiction Over Cases Arising on Indian Reservations (Public Law 280) 

Public Law 280: General Resources

  • Final Report - Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Under Public Law 280 examined the perspectives of more than 350 Indian tribal members and State and local officials on the impact of Federal Public Law (PL) 280, which structures law enforcement and criminal justice for 23 percent of the reservation-based tribal population and 51 percent of all tribes in the lower 48 States, while potentially affecting all Alaska Natives and their tribes or villages. Analysis of the qualitative and quantitative data indicates that reservation residents in PL-280 jurisdictions typically rated the availability and quality of law enforcement and criminal justice lower than reservation residents in non-PL-280 jurisdictions. State/county law enforcement officials in PL-280 jurisdictions, on the other hand, tended to provide more positive assessments of the impact of PL 280.
  • Tribal Jurisdictional Status Analysis (Updated February 16, 2010) by Carole Goldberg and Jonathan D. Varat, describes the legislation and case law pertaining to the jurisdiction of tribes in relationship to state jurisdiction.
  • The Great Lakes Indian Law Center at the University of Wisconsin School of Law has posted a paper (2008) focusing the PL 280 and tribal courts in Wisconsin. “A Perspective on the ‘schizophrenic’ approach to our legal relationship with Wisconsin’s Indian Nations and a modest proposal to give clarity to the federal Public Law 83-280 in Wisconsin” (Microsoft Word Document) is a response to proposed Wisconsin Rule of Court 7-11.
  • Final Report: Focus Group on Public Law 280 and the Sexual Assault of Native Women On August 15 - 16, 2007 the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) hosted a focus group in Green Bay, Wisconsin to discuss challenges to, and opportunities for, collaboration between states and tribes in Public Law 280 jurisdictions to address sexual assault in Indian country. The Tribal Law and Policy Institute provided technical assistance and collaborated with OVW on the design and delivery of the session. This final report details the event.
  • State jurisdiction overlooked problem in criminal justice debate (July 13, 2007), by Carole Goldberg
  • Criminal justice in Indian country comes in two distinct flavors - one blends federal and tribal authority, while the other blends state and tribal authority. Reservations across the country are subject to one or the other. But crime reports and most federal hearings on Indian country criminal justice focus only on the federal/tribal reservations. That's a mistake, because the state/tribal reservations encompass nearly one-quarter of the reservation-based tribal population and just over half the tribes in the lower 48 states, not to mention all Alaska Native villages. Any response to crime in Indian country needs to take account of the special problems posed by state jurisdiction.
  • Concurrent Tribal and State Jurisdiction Under Public Law 280, by Vanessa J. Jiménez and Soo C. Song
  • Every nation’s survival and self-governance hinges on its ability to maintain law and order and secure "comfortable, safe, and peaceable living" among its citizens. Indian nations are no different. Tribal governments need to maintain an adequate measure of justice and peace among their members if they are to survive and develop as viable entities. Tribal justice systems, including tribal courts and law enforcement, are essential institutions of tribal self-government. Currently, many tribal justice systems—widely varied in their relative sophistication and form—find themselves at a pivotal point in their development. Although increasing in number and prominence, uneven political, legal, and financial support impedes the ability of many tribal justice systems to function in full parity with state and federal systems ...
  • A Second Century of Dishonor: Federal Inequities and California Tribes, by Carole Goldberg, J.D. and Duane Champagne, Ph. D., with assistance from Wallace T. Cleaves, Leroy Seidel, Chad Gordon , Patty Ferguson, Kit Winter, Lola Worthington and Lori Soghomonian
  • This article focuses on California (one of the mandatory Public Law 280 states) and the inequities suffered by California Tribes, including the impact of Public Law 280. For over 100 years, studies conducted by federal, state, and private agencies have reached the same conclusion: California Indians are not receiving a fair share from federal Indian programs; and because they have received less support from the federal government, California Indians have suffered in social-economic well-being relative to other Indian groups in other states . . .

Criminal Jurisdiction on Indian Reservations (Indian Country)

Reservations without PL 280

Reservations with PL 280


Over Indians, subject to sentencing limits in Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA)

Over Indians, subject to sentencing limits in Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA)


Over major crimes committed by Indians (Major Crimes Act); Over interracial crime: Indian v. non-Indian (General Crimes Act); Over special liquor, gaming, and other offenses; otherwise, same as Off-Reservation

Same as Off-Reservation, unless tribe has requested and received authorization under 18 U.S.C. 1162(d), (authorizing concurrent federal criminal jurisdiction)


Only over crimes committed by non-Indians against other non-Indians

Over Indians and non-Indians generally, with exceptions found in Public Law 280

For additional Public Law 280 resources, please see our Indian Law Reviews page.


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