For the first time in seven years, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a tribal jurisdiction case that impacts law enforcement and civil actions on tribal land. The Court has granted certiorari to the case of Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Dollar General operates a store on trust land on the reservation. The tribe issued a license to the business, whose manager is accused of sexually assaulting a minor who was working there as part of a youth training program. The minor's parents sued Dollar General and the manager in tribal court, seeking at least $2.5 million in damages. The company, as a non-Indian entity, refused to submit to the court's jurisdiction. The outcome will determine whether Dollar General, a publicly-traded company with $17.5 billion in revenues can avoid the jurisdiction of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
The case is being closely watched across Indian Country. Although tribes and their advocates haven't submitted any briefs so far, they are worried that the Supreme Court might issue another disastrous ruling. "It puts this issue in front of a scary court in kind of a difficult way," said John Dossett, General Counsel for the National Congress of American Indians.
The last time tribal jurisdiction came before the high court was in Plains Commerce Bank v. Long, a case from 2008. By 5-4 vote, the justices held that a non-Indian bank did not have to answer to a lawsuit filed by two members of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe despite having entered into a consensual agreement with the couple.
Since that ruling, tribes and their advocates have been working hard to keep cases away from the court. The efforts of the Tribal Supreme Court Project, a joint project of NCAI and the Native American Rights Fund, appear to have been working, at least until now. "We were winning at the Supreme Court more than we were losing at the Supreme Court," Richard Guest of NARF said of the first few years of the project. Since John G. Roberts took on the position of chief justice of the court in 2005, tribal interests have won just two cases and have lost nine, Guest said at NCAI in February.