The Cherokee’s are most often known for their role in the Trail of Tears, but the Cherokees have always had a notable regard for justice. At the time of European contact the Cherokees were practicing what is now known as Clan Blood Law. Murder had the punishment of death whether or not it was an accident.
The tribe then went through a succession of events that would force them west. Andrew Jackson’s signing the removal act brought about the tribe’s Supreme Court case, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 1831. The tribe was removed from the western North Carolina-northern Georgia area during the winter of 1838-39.
The tribe however held on to its constitutional government in Indian Territory, later Oklahoma, on September 6, 1839 the Cherokees drafted another constitution. It divided powers among three branches of government, much like the U.S. Constitution, which was modeled from the Iroquois Confederation. The Judicial Branch included a Supreme Court and district or circuit courts with set term limits for justices and judges and jurisdictions. Many of the laws that were enacted were published in the tribal papers, the Phoenix and the Advocate.
Once again the Cherokee’s saw their life changed by the Curtis Act of 1898. The act itself abolished all tribal courts in Indian Territory, and took away the authority of court officials.
The Cherokee Nation Judicial Appeals Tribunal (JAT) was created by Article VII of the 1975 Constitution. The District Court was re-established by Legislative Act in 1991 after the 10th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals case decided Ross v Neff, which held that the State of Oklahoma did not have criminal jurisdiction over Indian country within the Cherokee Nation.
In June of 2006, the Judicial Appeals Tribunal issued its opinion in case number JAT-05-04. The Court found that the 1999 Constitution of the Cherokee Nation had been effective since July 26, 2003. The changes of the 1999 Constitution to the Judicial Branch are the Judicial Appeals Tribunal became the Supreme Court and added two more justices to the bench, bringing the count up to five. The District Court received original and general jurisdiction.