SCOTUS: Choctaws win jurisdictional battle

Splitting 4-4, the US Supreme Court affirmedthe 5th Circuit’s judgment that an Indian tribal court has jurisdiction over an intern’s claim that the manager of a store on tribal land sexually molested him while he was working there. This does not set a nation-wide precedent, yet it is a victory for tribal jurisdiction within the 5th Circuit. Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (US Supreme Court 06/23/2016). Dollar General operates a store on the Choctaw reservation. John Doe, a 13-year-old tribe member, was working at the store as an unpaid educational intern. Doe sued Dollar General and its store manager in tribal court, claiming that the manager sexually molested him while he was working there.

The store and the manager went to federal district court seeking an injunction against tribal officials, claiming that the tribal court lacks jurisdiction. The district court held that the tribal court had jurisdiction over Dollar General because it had a consensual relationship with the tribe and with Doe. The court also held there was no tribal jurisdiction over the manager because he personally had no consensual relationship with either the tribe or Doe. The 5th Circuit (2-1) affirmed. [5th Circuit opinion] [Denial of en banc rehearing]

The case was all about tribal sovereignty, and the extent to which a tribal court has jurisdiction over a non-Indian. Its significance is well stated by the dissenting judge:

For the first time ever, a federal court of appeals upholds Indian tribal court tort jurisdiction over a non-Indian, based on a consensual relationship, without a finding that jurisdiction is “necessary to protect tribal self-government or to control internal relations.”

[For recent decisions and pending employment law cases, see US Supreme Court Watch.]