Native women send a message to the U.S. Supreme Court as the justices heard arguments in Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a tribal jurisdiction case, on December 7, 2015. Photo by Indianz.Com

Supreme Court deadlocks in closely-watched tribal jurisdiction case

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday failed to come to a majority in Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a closely-watched tribal jurisdiction case.

By a 4-4 vote, the justices upheld a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that sided with the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. The tie means Dollar General, a publicly-traded company that reported $18.9 billion in net sales in 2014, must answer to a lawsuit filed in the tribe's court.

"The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court," the anti-climactic ruling stated.

The deadlock does not set a precedent so it doesn't benefit Indian Country as a whole. But it allows the family of a minor tribal member who alleged abuse at a Dollar General store on the reservation to continue to seek justice in the Choctaw court system.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: U.S. Supreme Court Oral Argument in Dollar General Corp. v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians December 7, 2015

On a larger scale, though, the tie represents the best possible outcome in a case that had tribal advocates everywhere worried. The Supreme Court decided its last tribal jurisdiction case by a 5-4 vote and it looked like Dollar General was headed in that same direction.

"It was pretty clear at the argument that the typical conservatives -- the five conservatives -- were not very happy about this case and the four judges who are less conservative seemed to be on our side," John Dossett, the general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians, said in February. "But it wasn't looking good."

Those five conservatives included Justice Antonin Scalia. Had he not passed away in February, he likely would have sided with Dollar General in holding that the company was not subject to tribal jurisdiction.

But the remaining members seemed hopelessly deadlocked without his vote. As the clock ticked on the case -- it was the oldest on the docket without a decision -- they were unable to reach a clear consensus.

The U.S. Supreme Court on June 23, 2016, issued a one-sentence decision in Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a closely-watched tribal jurisdiction case.

"I suspect that they were trying to put together some sort of majority until the last minute, and then just gave up," Amy Howe, the editor of the influential SCOTUSBlog, wrote on Thursday morning.

The owner of SCOTUSBlog is attorney Thomas Goldstein, who represented Dollar General at the Supreme Court. Howe worked at the Goldstein & Russell firm before becoming editor of the site full-time.

The four conservative-leaning members of the court are Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito. They were part of the majority in Plains Commerce Bank v. Long, which determined that the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe lacked jurisdiction over a non-Indian bank.

It would be highly unlikely for any of those four to have changed their minds about tribal jurisdiction since that 2008 decision. That left them in conflict with the four more liberal members of the court -- Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Justice Elena Kagan.

Sotomayor has emerged as Indian Country's most visible ally and Kagan, who is the most junior member of the court, has become a reliable voice for tribal interests. But the Supreme Court did not explain the tie so it's impossible at this point to know where the justices stood on Dollar General.

"Perhaps the Chief Justice assigned himself the majority after oral argument (he did write Plains Commerce and so has a track record), and struggled mightily to hold a majority for the past several months," law professor Matthew Fletcher, who called the tie a "huge win" for the Mississippi Band, wrote on Turtle Talk on Thursday.

It took the justices 199 days to resolve the case and Native women were among those paying close attention. They turned out in force on the day of oral arguments on December 7, 2015, to stand up for tribal sovereignty.

"We need to be able to protect our women and our children," Bonnie Juneau, a council member for the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, said at the time. "Justice should be applied no matter where you live."

U.S. Supreme Court Decision:
Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (June 23, 2016)

U.S. Supreme Court Documents:
Docket Sheet No. 13-1496 | Questions Presented | Oral Argument Transcript: Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians

5th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (March 14, 2014)
Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (March 14, 2014)

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Supreme Court enters final stretch of historic yet unusual term (6/20)
Native women confront high rates of violence in Indian Country (06/17)
Supreme Court still holding onto ruling in tribal jurisdiction case (6/16)
Noah Feldman: Supreme Court puts more Indian people in federal prison (06/16)
Supreme Court decision hailed as a victory for tribal sovereignty (06/14)
Matthew Fletcher: Takeaways from Supreme Court's new decision (06/14)
Supreme Court upholds use of tribal convictions in federal system (06/13)
Long wait continues for decision in tribal court jurisdiction dispute (6/13)
Supreme Court debates 'inherent' tribal sovereignty in new ruling (6/9)
Clock keeps ticking on closely-watched tribal jurisdiction dispute (06/06)
Opinion: Eight justices isn't enough for functioning Supreme Court (6/6)
Another week goes by without decision in tribal jurisdiction case (5/31)
Long wait hints at Supreme Court tie in closely-watched tribal jurisdiction case (05/23)
Supreme Court still holding onto decision in tribal jurisdiction case (5/19)
Still no decision from Supreme Court in tribal jurisdiction dispute (5/16)
Supreme Court pick puts some Indian law cases on questionnaire (05/11)
Still no decision from Supreme Court in tribal jurisdiction case (04/26)
Supreme Court still hasn't issued decision in tribal jurisdiction case (4/21)
Supreme Court case prompts defense of tribal judiciary systems (4/19)
Supreme Court ready to hear fourth Indian law case on the docket (4/18)
Bill in Senate expands tribal jurisdiction over non-Indian offenders (04/14)
Vacancy on Supreme Court already impacts high-profile cases (03/30)
Leader of Navajo Nation pushes for action on Supreme Court pick (03/22)
Chair of Sault Ste. Marie Tribe calls for action on court nominee (03/17)
Supreme Court nominee comes with some Indian law experience (03/16)
Dollar General defends plan to open in majority Native community (03/08)
Klamath Tribes oppose Dollar General store due to court challenge (03/01)
Aaron Payment: Tribal sovereignty hangs in the balance at Supreme Court (02/29)
Updates from Day 2 of National Congress of American Indians winter session in D.C. (02/24)
No Supreme Court opinions this week following Scalia's death (02/22)
Mississippi Choctaw family seeks $2.5M in Dollar General case (12/11)
Matthew Fletcher: Supreme Court takes up tribal jurisdiction case (12/8)
Native women rally at Supreme Court for tribal jurisdiction case (12/7)
Steven Newcomb: Supreme Court ready to cut sovereignty again (12/7)
Peter d'Errico: Anti-Indian forces play hardball in Supreme Court (12/7)
Mike Myers: Tribal jurisdiction opponents flock to Supreme Court (12/04)
Ned Blackhawk: Supreme Court case jeopardizes tribal rights (11/25)
Peter d'Errico: Anti-Indian wars continue in our Supreme Court (11/24)
Native women schedule Quilt Walk for Justice at Supreme Court (12/01)
Native women to rally at Supreme Court for upcoming case (11/11)
DOJ to help with arguments in Supreme Court jurisdiction case (11/09)
Vice President Joe Biden reflects on triumphs of Obama's Indian policies (10/28)
Native women defend tribal jurisdiction in Supreme Court case (10/26)
Tribes urged to bring states on board for Supreme Court case (10/20)
Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribal Tribune: Supreme Court case tests tribal jurisdiction (10/14)
Supreme Court schedules oral arguments in two Indian law cases (10/12)
States oppose tribal jurisdiction in upcoming Supreme Court case (10/07)
Bryan Newland: The racist foundation of Supreme Court rulings (09/08)
Supreme Court agrees to hear first tribal jurisdiction case in years (06/15)
Supreme Court needs more time to review tribal jurisdiction case (06/08)
SCOTUSBlog: DOJ urges denial of petition in tribal court dispute (05/20)
DOJ files brief in tribal jurisdiction case before Supreme Court (05/14)
Supreme Court asks DOJ for views in Mississippi Choctaw case (10/06)
Trending in News
More Headlines