Supreme Court bars state officials from tribal suit
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JUNE 26, 2001

Handing the state of Nevada victory in a ten-year tribal sovereignty dispute, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled that tribal courts don't have jurisdiction over state officials who enforce state law in Indian Country.

Overturning a 9th Circuit decision, the Court held that the Fallon-Paiute Shoshone tribal court lacks authority to hear a civil rights lawsuit brought by a tribal member against state game officials. Except in specific instances such as protecting self-government or political integrity, tribes don't have power over the activities of non-Indians even on tribally-owned land, said the Court.

But while all nine Justices agreed to reverse the case, there were numerous differences on the broadness of the ruling and how the quarrel between the state and the tribe might eventually be resolved. Similarly, the parties involved disputed how the decision might affect state-tribal relations.

"It's our view that this case will help state and tribal relations improve," said Nevada deputy attorney general Paul Taggart. "We can now enforce state laws on Indian reservation where necessary without hesitation or concern for unlimited or unprecedented legal judgments against our officials."

A lawyer for the tribe, however, believes the Court's judgment goes too far. By allowing state officials to come onto reservations without fear of accountability, the Court showed "lack of respect" for tribal sovereignty, said Melody McCoy, a Native American Rights Fund attorney.

"The majority says that when the state is investigating tribal members for alleged off-reservation crimes, they do not have to use the tribal system to conduct their investigation," said McCoy. "Its a terrible limit on [tribal] sovereign jurisdiction and uncalled for."

Nevada game wardens had, in fact, asked for tribal consent to search the home and property Floyd Hicks, a tribal member suspected of violating state laws off-reservation. While noting that each situation may be different, McCoy said that the Court "has definitely given states more power than its been generally understood that they have."

Taggart said the state would continue to seek tribal permission before entering Indian Country, which he said has always been done. "We never want to go [onto the reservation] without recognizing the sovereignty of the tribe," he said. "We always want to have that mutual respect between sovereigns."

Although Hicks is now prevented from using tribal court to resolve his claims, he could re-file his lawsuit in state or federal court, reasoned both McCoy and Taggart.

Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Clarence Thomas, and Ruth Ginsburg. Souter filed a concurring opinion, joined by Kennedy and Thomas, in which he argued the ruling might apply more broadly to all activities of non-Indians, not just state officials conducting state business.

Although Justice Sandra Day O'Connor agreed to reverse the case, she argued the majority's ruling gives non-Indians the "freedom to act with impunity on tribal land based solely on their status as state law enforcement officials." Joined by Justices John Paul Stevens and Steven Breyer, O'Connor said the majority's opinion "without cause, undermines the authority of tribes."

Stevens filed a concurring opinion, joined by Breyer, also agreeing to overturn the case. But he argued that tribal courts do have the ability to hear federal civil rights claims because Congress hasn't specifically forbidden such jurisdiction.

Ginsburg filed her own concurrence, indicating that the majority opinion failed to resolve some jurisdictional questions.

Hicks could not be reached for comment yesterday. Game wardens never found evidence to charge him with any state crime.

Get the Decision Nevada v. Hicks (99-1994):
Syllabus | Opinion | Concurrence (Souter) | Concurrence (Ginsburg) | Concurrence (O'Connor) | Concurrence (Stevens)

In Depth:
Nevada v. Hicks: Overview, briefs, oral arguments, etc... (5/29)

Relevant Links:
The Supreme Court -
Attorney General, Nevada -
Native American Rights Fund -
Tribal Court Institute -

Related Stories:
Supreme Court Roundup: The 2000-2001 Term (6/19)
Supreme Court to hear tribal court challenge (10/11)