SCOTUS Reviews Challenge to Tribal Sovereignty


American Indian tribes are considered to be separate, independent nations that have the authority to govern themselves. Congress enacted this tribal sovereignty to protect tribes from state authority. But what court presides over an issue between an American Indian and a nontribal American citizen?

Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians involved a 13-year old American Indian boy who was sexually assaulted multiple times by the non-Indian store manager at a Dollar General store which had hired the 13-year old as part of a tribal internship program. The store was on the Mississippi Choctaw reservation, situated in a retail shopping plaza that is on tribal trust lands. Dollar General consented to Mississippi Choctaw tribal court jurisdiction for matters arising out of its lease; and its business license was issued under the Choctaw code.

The youth and his family filed various civil claims against Dollar General and the store manager in tribal court, and Dollar General contested the tribal court’s jurisdiction. Dollar General lost on each occasion and was granted certiorari review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Arguments were December 7, 2015.

Dollar General argued that it would be denied due process if it and its employee were tried in tribal court because they would be judged by a jury composed exclusively of tribal members.

The Mississippi Choctaw Tribe argued that Dollar General essentially availed themselves of tribal jurisdiction:

“[N]obody forced Dollar General to show up on the tribal lands. Nobody forced Dollar General to sell to these customers. Nobody forced Dollar General to have this Youth Opportunity Program. And yes, like every employer in this country, . . . when you do those things, you open yourselves up to the reasonable liability that follows.”

The essence of tribal sovereignty, the Mississippi Choctaw Tribe explained, is the right of the people to govern themselves. The nation prefers tribal courts because they are more familiar with the tribal court processes and the courts are closer geographically [often, state (non-tribal) courts are several hours away from a tribal litigant].

According to SCOTUS blog, this is the second case directly regarding Indian Country  to be argued this Term. At least one more such case is expected to be argued before the end of the Term, making this “a watershed year for Native American interests at the Court.”

About the Author – Dara Lovitz

Dara Lovitz is the author of Muzzling A Movement: The Effects of Anti-Terrorism Law, Money, and Politics on Animal Activism (2010) and Catching Falling Cradles: A Gentle Approach to Classic Rhymes (2014), Adjunct Professor of Animal Law at Temple University Beasley School of Law, and CLE Project Coordinator for American Law Institute CLE. She is a founding member of the non-profit organization Peace Advocacy Network.

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