Group Argues That Tribal Court Has No Jurisdiction Over Non-Indians

Fairfield Sun Times

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


doc51eed15e6f6d8476492457DENVER, CO –  A nationally known, nonprofit, public-interest law firm with decades of experience addressing constitutional and legal issues as to American Indians today urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to uphold the holding of an Arizona federal district court that a Navajo District Court has no jurisdiction over non-Indians in a civil lawsuit filed for allegedly tortious conduct on an Arizona highway.  Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF), which had been urged to file a brief by the tribal court but whose arguments were rejected, urged the appeals court to uphold the federal district court’s ruling that the tribe lacks jurisdiction.  In August 2012, the federal district court ruled that the Navajo tribal court has no jurisdiction over the non-Indians sued in the case.  MSLF, which has been involved for decades in state and federal courts with regard to the authority of tribal courts over non-Indians and American Indians from other tribes, relied on U.S. Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rulings in arguing that the appellate court should uphold the lower court’s ruling.

“The highway is alienated, non-Indian land, no treaty or statute allows the Tribe to govern non-Indian conduct there, and no exception to these general rules applies,” said William Perry Pendley, president of MSLF.

In September 2004, an automobile/tour bus accident occurred within the exterior boundaries of the Navajo Nation on U.S. Highway 160 near Kayenta, Arizona.  The tour bus passengers had stayed overnight at a hotel on Navajo Nation land, and the following day the bus, driven by Russell J. Conlon, left the hotel.  As it proceeded westward on Highway 160 the bus collided head on with a 1997 Pontiac that contained two members of the Navajo Nation.  One Navajo passenger was killed and the other passenger was injured.  In December 2006, relatives and the survivor filed a lawsuit for allegedly tortious conduct, seeking compensatory and punitive damages, against the tour bus owners, operators, driver, and insurance company in the District Court of the Navajo Nation for the Kayenta District.

Those sued were all non-Indians; therefore, they filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in the Navajo District Court, alleging that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction.  The District Court entered an Order denying the motion and ruled that it had jurisdiction.  Those sued then filed a Petition for Writ of Prohibition with the Navajo Supreme Court asking that the Navajo Supreme Court bar the District Court from proceeding with the case.  In March 2010, the Navajo Supreme Court issued an Order asking that MSLF and others file amicus curiae briefs; MSLF filed the sole brief in April 2010.  The case was argued in May 2010 and decided in September 2010.

Mountain States Legal Foundation, founded in 1977, is a nonprofit, public-interest law firm dedicated to individual liberty, the right to own and use property, limited and ethical government, and the free enterprise system freedom.  Its offices are in suburban Denver, Colorado.