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SCOTUS To Review 5th Cir Ruling on Tribal Court Jurisdiction

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on June 18, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Supreme Court has granted cert to an appeal of the Fifth Circuit's ruling that native Indian tribal courts have jurisdiction to hear civil tort claims against nonmembers. Specifically, the Fifth Circuit found that a Dollar General store could be sued in tribal court after a store manager of a store on tribal land allegedly molested a young member of the Choctaw tribe.

The ruling was the first of its kind and suggested that businesses and individuals who enter into agreements with an Indian tribe, especially commercial ones, can be subject to the jurisdiction of the tribal courts. As the dissent in that case noted, it was an ambitious ruling, especially "coming from a circuit that decides little Indian law."

Tort Claims Against Dollar Store

In 2003, Dollar Store operated a store on the Choctaw reservation in Mississippi. It had both a lease with the tribe and a tribal business license. A 13-year-old boy and member of the Choctaw tribe, worked as an unpaid intern there and alleged that his manager molested him. He sued the store in tribal court, for $2.5 million in damages.

Dollar Store claimed the tribe had no jurisdiction over it, but the Fifth Circuit disagreed. Generally, Indian tribes have limited power over nonmembers. However, under Montana v. U.S., the court found, a tribe may regulate the activities of nonmembers who enter consensual relationships with the tribe or its member, through commercial dealing, contracts, leases or other arrangements." As an exercise of its sovereignty, a tribe may regulate "through taxation, licensing, or other means" those relationships. To the Fifth, exercising jurisdiction over tort claims, when the proper nexus exists, is one of those valid "other means."

How Far Does Tribal Jurisdiction Reach?

By granting cert, the Supreme Court will get to decide the reach of tribal jurisdiction. Though Native Indian tribes have highly circumscribed powers over nonmembers, the Court in Montana emphasized the need to respect tribal sovereignty and the importance of tribal court's to a tribe's self-governance.

Dollar Store, however, argues that the Fifth took those concerns too far. As their petition for cert notes, the Court has come close to answering a similar question before. In 2008, it granted cert to a similar case, seeking to answer the question of whether civil jurisdiction over nonmembers was one of the "other means" allowed under Montana. The Court avoided the question, however, deciding the issue on other grounds.

Should the Supreme Court uphold the Fifth's ruling, they could drastically increase the influence of tribal courts over nonmembers. Tribes have generally been working to keep the Supreme Court away from deciding such issues and both the Choctaw tribe and the Department of Justice had opposed cert.

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