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The Rise of Tribes and the Fall of Federal Indian Law
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Supreme Court agrees to hear tribal jurisdiction case
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Filed Under: Law

After refusing to hear a number of Indian law disputes, the U.S. Supreme Court last Friday accepted a case that tests the limits of tribal jurisdiction.

The case involves a non-Indian bank and an Indian couple from the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. Plains Commerce Bank says it doesn't have to answer to a breach of contract and discrimination lawsuit filed in tribal court by Ronnie and Lila Long, who own a cattle operation.

In most situations, that would be true. Tribes, in general, lack jurisdiction over non-Indians except in certain conditions outlined in Montana v. US, a Supreme Court case from 1981.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals last June ruled that the conditions were satisfied in the case. The bank established a consensual relationship with the Longs and the bank's conduct can be regulated by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe's government, the three-judge panel said in a unanimous ruling.

"Because the bank not only transacted with a corporation of conspicuous tribal character, but also formed concrete commercial relationships with the Indian owners of that corporation, we conclude that it engaged in the kind of consensual relationship contemplated by Montana," Judge Diana E. Murphy wrote for the majority.

The decision marked one of the rare occasions in which a tribal court lawsuit has survived the Montana test. Tribal advocates have noted it is very difficult to meet the Supreme Court's high bar.

The justices will now get a chance to revisit its seminal ruling with the Plains Commerce case. The bank's opening brief is due February 12, with a response from the Longs due a month after that.

The case is being watched closely by the Native American Rights Fund and the National Congress of American Indians. The two organizations, through their joint Supreme Court Project, monitor Indian law litigation in hopes of preventing a repeat of the disastrous 2001 term, when tribal interests lost nearly every case that went before the justices.

Since then, the court has accepted just a handful of Indian law cases. Only two major rulings -- a land-into-trust case involving the Oneida Nation of New York and a taxation dispute between the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and the state of Kansas -- have gone against tribal interests.

The Supreme Court has been asked to revisit Montana as recently as 2006. But the justices turned down a case that affected a wrongful death lawsuit on the Flathead Reservation in Montana.

In that case, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes could hear the lawsuit even though it was not filed by a tribal member. The 9th Circuit, citing Montana, said tribal interests were directly affected.

As a result of the Salish and Kootenai case, the 9th Circuit last year revived a lawsuit filed by members of the Navajo Nation against Ford Motor Company. The parents of Esther Todecheene, a tribal police officer, allege Ford manufactured a defective vehicle but Ford says the Navajo courts lack jurisdiction to hear the case.

If the Supreme Court upholds the 8th Circuit in the Plains Commerce case, the bank faces a judgment of nearly $900,000 in tribal court.

Relevant Documents:
Docket Sheet: No. 07-411 | Petition | Opposition

Appeals Court Decision:
Plains Commerce Bank v. Long Family Land and Cattle Company (June 26, 2007)

Lower Court Decision:
Plains Commerce Bank v. Long Family Land and Cattle Company (July 18, 2006)

Related Decision:
Smith v. Salish Kootenai College (January 10, 2006)

Relevant Links:
Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe -
Plains Commerce Bank -
NARF-NCAI Tribal Supreme Court Project -

Related Stories:
Appeals court upholds tribal verdict in bank loan case (6/28)
Navajo jurisdiction dispute back in court (5/10)
9th Circuit vacates tribal jurisdiction ruling (2/2)
Court subjects non-Indian bank to tribal laws (7/20)
Appeals court upholds tribal jurisdiction after rehearing (01/11)
Judge rules in jurisdiction dispute over clinic (11/7)
Federal courts try to decide who is legally Indian (08/24)
Appeals court to rehear tribal jurisdiction case (06/08)
Judge denies tribal jurisdiction over Indian descendant (12/08)
Appeals court rules against tribal jurisdiction (08/09)
Tribal authority over all Indians still unsettled question (06/23)
Supreme Court affirms tribal powers over all Indians (04/20)
Supreme Court hears tribal powers case (01/22)
Supreme Court case on jurisdiction attracts attention (01/08)

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