Supreme Court Split On Native Court Jurisdiction

Jun 27, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court Building
Credit Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

A recent Supreme Court case involving tribal sovereignty ended in a tie. The Dollar General Corp. v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians ruling has implications for Natives and non-Natives.

More than a decade ago, a Native American boy was placed in an internship program at a Dollar General store on the Mississippi Choctaw reservation. An employee is accused of molesting the boy. His family is seeking civil damages in tribal court. A former U.S. Attorney for South Dakota, Brendan Johnson, says the issue is whether the tribal court has jurisdiction to hear the case.
 
“The question is, when you have a non-Indian, can they be required to go into a tribal court system to defend themselves,” Johnson says.
 
Because the Supreme Court Justices were equally divided, a lower court’s decision that the tribal court does have jurisdiction stands.
 
“Here we see in what is allegedly a very sad, tragic case for this young man, that the company will have to make its case in tribal court,” Johnson says.
 
Johnson says the split decision by the Court emphasizes the need for nine Justices.
 
“Without nine Justices, we see the decision instead being deadlocked,” Johnson says. “And thus really the 5th Circuit decision winds up being affirmed and it winds up in tribal court. But it highlights for us the significance, the absolute significance of who the next Supreme Court Justice will be, and what that Justice’s opinions of Indian Country jurisdiction will be.”
 
Johnson says tribal court systems differ from one another. He says there are some that need to improve. But he says there has been significant progress in courts across the country in the past decade. He expects to see more decisions recognizing the validity of tribal courts.