SCOTUS to Hear Case on Tribal Court Jurisdiction

     (CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Monday to hear Dollar General’s appeal of a Fifth Circuit decision affirming that a tribal court in Mississippi has jurisdiction in a sexual assault case involving a former store intern.
     The intern, a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, sued Dollar General in Choctaw tribal court in 2005, claiming he had been sexually assaulted by a store manager.
     Dollar General and Dale Townsend, the store manager, moved for dismissal of the teen’s claims on the grounds the tribal court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. The tribal court denied both motions.
     The retailer and store manager appealed to the Choctaw Supreme Court, which held that subject-matter jurisdiction did exist. The parties then filed a federal action in Jackson, Miss., seeking an injunction against the prosecution of the underlying lawsuit by the tribe.
     Dollar General objected on the grounds that continued litigation in tribal court could subject it to a judgment – and particularly, a punitive-damage award – with no avenue of appeal, since the tribe has sovereign immunity. It also claimed that the limited jurisdiction of the tribal court could impair its ability to subpoena witnesses and defend itself against the underlying claims.
     While tribal courts generally don’t have the authority to decide cases involving nonmembers of a tribe, U.S. District Judge Tom Lee drew a distinction in this case, holding that because Dollar General participated in the tribal internship program, a consensual relationship had been created between the retailer and the tribe.
     A divided Fifth Circuit affirmed Lee’s ruling, holding that “if the federal government could never ‘waive a citizen’s constitutional right’ by subjecting him to the jurisdiction of a court lacking full constitutional protections, a non-Indian could never be subjected to tribal court jurisdiction.
     “Yet the Supreme Court has acknowledged that by entering certain consensual relationships with Indian tribes, a nonmember may implicitly consent to jurisdiction in a tribal court that operates differently from federal and state courts. Accordingly, we conclude that the availability of punitive damages has no effect on the tribal court’s jurisdiction,” the panel majority continued.
     U.S. Circuit Judge Jerry Smith, the panel’s dissenter, blasted the majority’s decision, writing that was mystified that “[f]or the first time ever,” a federal appeals court upheld “Indian tribal-court tort jurisdiction over a non-Indian, based on a consensual relationship, without finding that jurisdiction is ‘necessary to protect tribal self-government or to control internal relations.'”
     “The majority’s alarming and unprecedented holding far outpaces the Supreme Court, which has never upheld Indian jurisdiction over a nonmember defendant,” Smith said.
     Dollar General filed a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court on June 12, 2014. In that petition, the company essentially restated Judge Smith’s position, saying that if the majority’s ruling is allowed to stand, it could subject other companies to a slew of new lawsuits in tribal courts.

%d bloggers like this: