Sunday, 26 June 2016

US Supreme Court decision on tribal court jurisdiction over non-tribal member

On June 23, 2016, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling on the issue of whether tribal courts have jurisdiction over non-tribal members in civil tort claims.

The decision was split 4-4, finding in favour of the jurisdiction of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, in the decision Dollar General v Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.  In essence this deadlock upholds the decision of the lower court, which found in favour of tribal jurisdiction.

The judgment from the US Supreme Court itself does not shed much light on the reasoning behind the decisions on either side, simply stating that “The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court.” 

As one opinion analysis notes, the case centered on the issue  of “exactly constitutes enough consent”  from non-members for  tribal jurisdiction to apply.

This decision is yet another part of the complex and at times unclear federal law on American Indians. One commentator notes that: 

 “Because of the uniqueness of Indian law and as a result of its patchwork nature, Justices have been known in private conversation to express frustration with the vagaries of Indian law cases. More than two decades ago, a Justice who was speaking in private to a group of scholars observed that when it came to Indian law, “we just make it up as we go.”

Useful commentary on the decision can also be found here. 

Will this decision provide clarity on the contentious issue of tribal jurisdiction, or is this to be regarded as an instance of the Court side-stepping a difficult question? 

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