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Eighth Circuit Rejects Tribal Court Jurisdiction over Auto Crash Suit April 6, 2008

Posted by rezjudicata in 8th Circuit, Federal Circuits.
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Nord v. Kelly, No. 07-1564 (8th Cir. Apr. 4, 2008)

Issue(s): Tribal Courts > Civil Jurisdiction >> Non-members >>> Strate

While hauling timber off of the Red Lake Reservation under a contract with the Tribe, Nord collided with Kelly. The accident occurred inside the Reservation, but on a state highway. Kelly sued Nord in the Red Lake Tribal Court. The Tribe purportedly granted the State a right-of-way for the road and the State maintains the road. If Nord is not a member of the tribe, could the tribal court exercise jurisdiction over Kelly’s suit?

No, said the Eighth Circuit. According to the Court, this case fell “all fours” with the Supreme Court’s Strate v. A-1 Contractors decision. In Strate, the Supreme Court fashioned the rule that, absent a contrary statute or treaty, tribal courts have no jurisdiction over the conduct of non-members on state highways. The Strate Court equated state highways with non-Indian land–land which generally escapes tribal jurisdiction. The Eighth Circuit found no legally significant differences between this case and Strate. No statute or treaty existed to rebut the Strate rule. And neither Montana exception applied because the lawsuit involved a “commonplace automobile accident” between strangers.

The Eighth Circuit rejected the Tribal Court’s argument that the right-of-way stipulation from 1955 granted the State only limited rights. First, said the Court, the plain language of the stipulation contradicted the Tribal Court’s assertion. And second, the Court refused to analyze the “course of conduct” between the Tribe and State. Strate held that statute or treaty must explicitly confirm tribal regulatory authority over state highways. Absent such a statement, State and Tribal practices–even if respectful to tribal sovereignty–cannot alter the legal nature of the right-of-way. Thus, the case warranted full application of Strate and the federal court stripped the tribal court of jurisdiction.

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