Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Supreme Court strikes down tribal jurisdiction

In a 5-4 decision the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe does not have jurisdiction over a non-Indian bank doing business on the reservation. In Plains Commerce Bank v. Long, the Court reversed the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which said the bank was subject to tribal jurisdiction.

Plains Commerce Bank, a non-Indian bank, sold land it owned in fee simple on the CRST reservation to non-Indians. The Longs, an Indian couple who had been leasing the land with an option to purchase, claimed the bank discriminated against them by selling the parcel to nonmembers of the tribe on terms more favorable than the bank offered to sell it to them. The couple sued in tribal court, asserting discrimination, breach-of-contract, and bad-faith claims. Over the bank's objection, the tribal court concluded that it had jurisdiction and proceeded to trial, where a jury ruled against the bank on three claims, including the discrimination claim.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts said once the land was sold in fee simple to non-Indians, it passed beyond the tribe’s control. And the mere resale of the land to non-Indians did not threaten the tribe’s interests.

Roberts drew a distinction between the sale of the land and non-Indian activity on the land. Precedent, he said, did allow for the tribe to protect its interest in guarding the health or safety of its member by regulating non-Indian activity on the land.

“But the key point is that any threat to the tribe’s sovereign interests flows from changed uses or non-member activities, rather than from the mere fact of resale,” Roberts wrote.

Justices Ginsberg, Stevens, Souter and Breyer dissented.

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