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Ninth Circuit Tells Father To Exhaust Tribal Court Remedies January 19, 2008

Posted by rezjudicata in 9th Circuit, Federal Circuits.
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Atwood v. Fort Peck Tribal Court, No. 06-35299 (9th Cir. Jan. 18, 2008)

Issue(s): Federal Jurisdiction > Subject Matter Jurisdiction >> § 1331 >>> Domestic Relations Exception; Federal Jurisdiction > Exhaustion of Tribal Remedies

Federal question jurisdiction exists for challenges to tribal court jurisdiction. As a prudential matter, however, an appellant must exhaust his tribal remedies before the federal court will exercise its jurisdiction. Linda Hanson sought custody of her niece in the Fort Peck Tribal Court. While this case was pending, Atwood sued to enjoin the tribal court action in federal court. Did the district court have jurisdiction over Atwood’s suit? Even so, did Atwood need to exhaust his tribal court remedies?

Yes, in both cases, ruled the Ninth Circuit. Hanson argued that the “domestic relations exception” stripped the federal court of jurisdiction. The Court, however, held that this exception applied only in diversity cases. Because the case fell under section 1331–federal question jurisdiction, the district court had authority to hear the case.

When the defendant asserts tribal jurisdiction in bad faith or to delay the proceedings, the federal court plaintiff doesn’t have to exhaust tribal court remedies. If tribal courts “plainly” lack jurisdiction, there is no exhaustion requirement, either. These exceptions to exhaustion doctrine, however, are narrow. Thus, exhaustion arises even when tribal jurisdiction is simply “plausible.” The Court found no evidence that Hanson invoked tribal court jurisdiction for malignant reasons. Moreover, tribal court jurisdiction was “almost certainly…proper.” Under a previous custody agreement, the tribal court had “continuing jurisdiction” over the issue. Atwood had even used the tribal court in a previous custody dispute. And lastly, the child at the center of the dispute was a member of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes. Therefore, because the tribal court case was still pending, the Court forced Atwood to exhaust his tribal court remedies and dismissed his suit.

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