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Ho-Chunk Supreme Court Says It Lacks Jurisdiction over Contract Dispute November 24, 2007

Posted by rezjudicata in Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court, Tribal Courts.
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HCN Treasury Dep’t v. Corvettes on the Isthmus, SU-07-03 (HC Sup. Ct. Nov. 19, 2007)

Issue(s): Constitutional Law > Jurisdiction >> Subject Matter; Constitutional Law > Separation of Powers

The Ho-Chunk Hotel and Convention Center alleged that it entered into a rental contract with Corvettes on the Isthmus. Neither party had a written, signed version of the agreement. Given that the Ho-Chunk Nation has no statute or code covering this scenario, could the courts exercise jurisdiction over the case?

The Ho-Chunk Supreme Court said no. Under the Ho-Chunk Constitution, the courts have jurisdiction over “all cases and controversies, both criminal and civil in law or in equity, arising under the the Constitution, laws, customs and traditions of the Ho-Chunk Nation.” The dispute here did not fall within this constitutional grant. Without a commercial code, statute, or other positive law, the court had no “law” to apply. And, since the historic Ho-Chunk people did not develop advanced commercial norms, the Court could not use customary law as a basis for decision. Moreover, jurisdiction did not hinge on whether the case was in “law” or “equity” because both require the courts to apply substantive law. Separation of powers mandated that the courts can’t create law to decide the case. Therefore, the courts had no subject matter jurisdiction over the contract dispute.

Even if the courts could exercise jurisdiction, the Court noted two alternate ways it could dismiss the case. First, there was no written contract. In the absence of a law governing oral contracts, the parties could not prove the terms of the agreement. Second, the Legislature is constitutionally charged with making contracts on behalf of the Nation. This authority had not been properly delegated to the Convention Center. Lacking jurisdiction or a justiciable basis for decision, the Court dismissed the case.

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