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Supreme Court: The 2000-2001 Term
MARCH 6, 2001

The Supreme Court will be busy in upcoming months discussing Indian law issues, having accepted a number of cases affecting tribes throughout Indian Country.

So far, they've decided on one such case and on Monday ruled that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) doesn't exempt a number of documents relating to the Department of Interior's trust responsibilities. Is the ruling a warning of things to come?

Today, we're taking a look at the future Indian law cases before the Court to get a glimpse of some of the issues which lie ahead.

Tribal Sovereign Immunity
In oral arguments scheduled for March 19, the Court will hear a contractual dispute between a construction company and the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma. C&L Enterprises argues the tribe waived its sovereign immunity but the tribe disagrees.

The Court has previously addressed the general aspects of sovereign immunity but will now consider under what circumstances it might be waived by a tribe. The contract was executed on non-trust land for construction on a property on non-trust land and didn't directly address the issue of sovereign immunity. Instead, it subjected the tribe to binding arbitration, which the Court may or may not agree constitutes a waiver.

Several states have filed briefs supporting C&L. The United States and the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians filed briefs in support of the tribe.

Get the Story: Supreme Court to consider immunity (10/31)

Taxation By Tribes
In a case which could have a dramatic impact throughout Indian Country, the Court on March 27 will decide if a tribe has a right to tax a non-Indian business on non-Indian owned land located within a reservation.

Atkinson Trading Post in Arizona has refused to collect an 8 percent hotel lodging tax the Navajo Nation has imposed on businesses. The company says the tribe has no authority over its actions with non-Indian customers but the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.

A number of tribes have similar taxes which the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has struck down. The Supreme Court could end up resolving the dispute once and for all.

A number of states, private industries, and anti-treaty rights organizations -- including Proper Economic Resource Management (PERM) -- have filed briefs in support of Atkinson. Several tribes have filed briefs in support of the Navajo Nation. One of Atkinson's legal counsel is Steptoe & Johnson, a Washington, Dc, law firm.

Get the Story: Supreme Court to take on taxation (11/28) | Crow fate may rest in decision (11/28)

Taxation Of Tribes
Arguments have yet to be scheduled for a taxation dispute between the United States and the Choctaw Nation and Chickasaw Nation.

Both tribes have refused to pay gaming taxes on pull-tabs they sell, arguing they are exempt from wagering excise taxes and federal occupational taxes. States are exempt but the Court has never considered the tribal issue.

The tribes have been ordered to pay the taxes by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. As of 1997, the Chickasaw Nation owed about $42,000 dollars while the Choctaw Nation owed almost $153,000.

No friend-of-the-court briefs have yet been reported filed by any party.

Get the Story: Supreme Court accepts taxation case (01/23) | OK tribes told to pay pull-tab taxes (04/06)

States' Rights and Tribes
In arguments scheduled for March 21, the Court will decide if state officials are immune from suit in tribal court.

Floyd Hicks, a member of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, filed suit against four Nevada game officials for alleged violations of his civil rights. His home on tribal land was searched at least twice but no evidence was ever found to show Hicks broke state game law.

Hicks eventually sued the officials in tribal court, but the state asserted the tribal court had no jurisdiction over state officials. They also said the officials had sovereign immunity. Two courts have so far disagreed and the state appealed.

Almost 20 states have filed a brief in support of Nevada. The United States and several tribes have filed briefs in support of the tribe.

Get the Story: Supreme Court to hear tribal court challenge (Tribal Law 10/11)

States' Rights and Tribes, Part II
In arguments scheduled for April 23, the Court will hear an appeal by the state of Idaho who claims it owns the entire Lake Coeur d'Alene.

Two courts, however, have ruled that the Coeur d'Alene Tribe has ownership of just the southern third. The Court previously rejected this case due to state sovereign immunity but the United States entered the dispute in support of the tribe, forcing the lower courts to address the issue.

Idaho now argues a Supreme Court decision affecting "submerged lands" in Alaska gives them ownership to the entire lake. Several states and two counties in Idaho have filed briefs supporting this position.

Get the Story: Supreme Court to rule on lake ownership (12/13)

Trust Lands
The Supreme Court may or may not accept an appeal filed by the state of Connecticut and three towns who oppose a decision made by the Department of Interior to take 165 acres of land into trust for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.

Among other claims, the state says the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) does not apply to the tribe because it wasn't federally recognized at the time of its passage. The Act gives the Secretary of Interior the power to take land into trust for federally recognized tribes.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals last fall decided in favor of the Interior, reversing a federal court decision.

Get the Story: State joins Pequot appeal (11/29) | Towns to appeal Pequot ruling (11/07)

Relevant Links
The Supreme Court -
The Supreme Court Justices, a Washington Post Guide -

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