Beyond Uniqueness: Reimagining Tribal Courts’ Jurisdiction

14 Dec 2013 02:07pm Katherine Florey 

If there is one point about tribal status that the Supreme Court has stressed for decades, if not centuries, it is the notion that tribes as political entities are utterly one of a kind. This is to some extent reasonable; tribes, unlike other governments, have suffered the painful history of colonial conquest, making some distinctive treatment eminently justifiable. But recent developments have demonstrated that, for many tribes, uniqueness has its disadvantages. In the past few decades, the Supreme Court has undertaken a near-complete dismantling of tribal civil jurisdiction over nonmembers. Under current law, tribes have virtually no authority to permit nonmembers to be haled into tribal courts-even when nonmembers have significant ties to the tribe and have come onto the reservation for personal gain. Tribal uniqueness has thus come to include tribes' singular inability to exercise jurisdiction over nonmembers, despite the reality that people and commerce move freely across tribal and nontribal land. 

This is a mistake. Tribal court jurisdiction has much in common with broader notions of personal jurisdiction, and the Court's failure to recognize this commonality limits and distorts its analysis. Indeed, no good reason exists why current personal jurisdiction doctrines could not be adapted to encompass the issues that tribal court jurisdiction presents; that is true even if one concedes various premises of the Court's opinions, such as the idea that it is inherently burdensome in most cases for nonmembers to defend in tribal court. Personal jurisdiction doctrine is perfectly suited to addressing the often-complex fact patterns that characterize modern disputes involving Indian country because minimum contacts analysis allows courts to take a nuanced, flexible view of the degree of connection between the defendant and the forum. For these reasons, this Article argues that limitations on tribal court jurisdiction over nonmembers should be recharacterized as limits on personal jurisdiction. This would both harmonize tribal courts' jurisdiction with that of federal and state courts, and do a better job than current doctrine in balancing the legitimate interests of both tribes and nonmember defendants.

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