U.S. Supreme Court Affirms Tribal Court Jurisdiction in Dollar General v. Mississippi Choctaw

Published on Jun 23, 2016

June 23, 2016


U.S. Supreme Court Affirms Tribal Court Jurisdiction in Dollar General v. Mississippi Choctaw

Washington, DC - Today, June 23, 2016, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (No. 13-1496). The decision was a 4 to 4 tie, meaning that there is no written opinion, and the evenly divided court affirms the decision of the Fifth Circuit, which upheld the jurisdiction of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Tribal Courts over tort claims brought by a tribal member against a corporation doing business on the reservation. The Fifth Circuit decision is not direct precedent outside of the Fifth Circuit (Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas) but is persuasive for other courts and affirms the longstanding legal principle that tribal courts have civil jurisdiction over non-Indian conduct arising from consensual relations on Indian reservations. 

“Tribal courts must have the authority to protect and provide remedies for tribal members who are subjected to assault on an Indian reservation,” said NCAI President Brian Cladoosby.  “The Supreme Court upheld the Fifth Circuit's decision, and the civil lawsuit against Dollar General in the Mississippi Choctaw Tribal Court will proceed. While we applaud this result, we also remember that the offender in this case was never held criminally responsible for his crimes. For victims on tribal lands to truly have access to justice, Congress must take action to untie the hands of tribal courts and allow them to prosecute offenders who commit crimes against our children regardless of their race.”

2016 SCOTUS Indian Country Decisions
With this decision, the Supreme Court is three for three in upholding tribal sovereignty in major Indian law cases this year. In Nebraska v. Parker, a unanimous Court upheld the authority of the Omaha Tribe to impose a liquor tax, and rejected the State of Nebraska’s argument that the reservation was diminished. In U.S. v. Bryant, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the reliability of tribal court convictions as a predicate for the federal crime of habitual domestic violence. Both Bryant and Dollar General are very important cases for the ability of tribal courts to protect tribal members from domestic violence and sexual assault.

Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians
In the Dollar General case, a young tribal member participating in a job-training program was sexually assaulted by the store manager at the store during work hours. His parents sued Dollar General in Tribal Court for damages caused by the assault. Dollar General filed this action in federal court, asserting that a tribal court cannot assert tort jurisdiction over a non-Indian business on a reservation. The Fifth Circuit ruled that because Dollar General agreed to participate in the job training program, it was subject to tribal court jurisdiction over conduct that arose from the employer relationship. Copies of the Fifth Circuit decision and briefs on the merits are available here

U.S. v. Montana
In U.S. v. Montana, the Supreme Court said that Indian tribes generally lack civil jurisdiction over non-Indians on non-Indian fee land within the reservation with two exceptions. First, a tribe may regulate "through taxation, licensing, or other means, the activities of nonmembers who enter consensual relationships with the tribe or its members, through commercial dealing, contracts, leases, or other arrangements." Second, a tribe "may also retain inherent power to exercise civil authority over the conduct of non-Indians on fee lands within its reservation when that conduct threatens or has some direct effect on the political integrity, the economic security, or the health or welfare of the tribe." This legal standard now has added force.

What the Dollar General Decision Means
The major question decided is that tribal courts have jurisdiction to protect their members from intentional torts committed within the context of an employer relationship by a business that is located on tribal lands. This is a particularly important question because Indian tribes do not generally have criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians. The ability to seek a civil remedy, then, is the only deterrent to unlawful actions committed by non-Indians who are working or doing business on the reservation.A recent study by the National Institute of Justice found that more than 4 in 5 Indians will experience violent victimization in their lifetime and nearly all (more than 90% of Indian men and 97% of Indian women) will be victimized by a non-Indian offender. 

If you have questions, please contact John Dossett at jdossett@ncai.org.


About The National Congress of American Indians:
Founded in 1944, the National Congress of American Indians is the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization in the country. NCAI advocates on behalf of tribal governments and communities, promoting strong tribal-federal government-to-government policies, and promoting a better understanding among the general public regarding American Indian and Alaska Native governments, people and rights. For more information visit www.ncai.org. 

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