2014-15 Term
Supreme Court Cases Related to Indian Law

Cert Granted

Two Indian law-related cases were granted. One cases was granted, then vacated and remanded.

Cert Denied

Petition for certiorari was denied in 12 Indian law-related cases.


Cert Granted

Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin v. U.S.
Briefs and Pleadings
Docket No. 14-510

*Issues: Did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit misapply this court's decision in Holland v. Florida, 560 U.S. 631 (2010), when it ruled in direct conflict with a holding of the Federal Circuit on materially similar facts that the Tribe did not face an extraordinary circumstance warranting equitable tolling of the statute of limitations for filing of Indian Self-Determination Act claims under the Contract Disputes Act?

History: Petition was filed on 11/03/14. Granted review on 6/30/15.

*Holding Below: Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin v. U.S. 765 F.3d 1010. Federal law requires that a claim for breach of a self determination contract between an Indian Tribe and a federal agency be filed with a contracting officer at the agency within six years of the claim's accrual. The Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin filed claims in 2005 against the Department of Health and Human Services for unpaid contract support costs that accrued from 1996 through 1998 more than six years earlier. This court concludes that that the legal misunderstandings and tactical mistakes the tribe has identified here do not amount to extraordinary circumstance[s] justifying equitable tolling. The Menominee Tribe's claims are thus barred by the statute of limitations. If a lawsuit's breadth and complexity were an extraordinary circumstance, few statutes of limitations would function. And the remaining circumstances the tribe's mistaken belief that it would be entitled to class-action tolling and that its claims had no hope of success were the tribe's own missteps. On the facts of this case, this court cannot conclude that a series of events, none extraordinary on its own, piled up to create an extraordinary obstacle.

Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians
Briefs and Pleadings including Oral Argument Transcript
Additional Materials at Turtle Talk
Docket No. 13-1496

*Issues: Do Indian tribal courts have jurisdiction to adjudicate civil tort claims against nonmenbers, including as a means of regulating the conduct of nonmembers who enter into consensual relationships with a tribe or its members?

History: Petition was filed on 6/12/14. Pertition was granted on 6/15/15. Oral argument 12/7/15.

*Holding Below: Dolgencorp, Inc. v. the Mississippi Band of Chocktaw Indians, 746 F.3d 167. This court affirms the district court's judgment that the corporation's consensual relationship with John Doe gives rise to tribal court jurisdiction over Doe's tort claims under Montana v. United States, 450 U.S. 544 (1981). In Montana, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that a tribe may regulate the activities of nonmembers who enter into consensual relationships with the tribe or its members through commercial dealing, contracts, leases or other arrangements. It is surely within the tribe's regulatory authority to insist that a child working for a local business not be sexually assaulted by the employees of the business. The fact that the regulation takes the form of a tort duty that may be vindicated by individual tribe members in tribal court makes no difference.

Related News Stories: First impressions: Dollar General and Indian Country (Indian Country Today) 12/9/15, Supreme Court ruling could jeopardize Native American judicial sovereignty (UPI) 12/8/15, Justices weigh power of Indian tribal courts in civil suits (The NY Times) 12/7/15, Ned Blackhawk NYTs op-ed on Dollar General (Turtle Talk) 11/25/15, Dollar General and the racist foundation of the Supreme Court's tribal jurisdiction cases. (Turtle Talk) 9/8/15. Supreme Court agrees to hear first tribal jurisdiction case in years (Indianz) 6/15/15. SCOTUS to hear case on tribal court jurisdiction. (Courthouse News Service) 6/15/15. Supreme Court needs more time to review tribal jurisdiction case (Indianz) 6/8/2015.Supreme Court asks DOJ for views in Mississippi Choctaw case (Indianz) 10/7/14.

Knight v. Thompson
Briefs and Pleadings
Docket No. 13-955

*Issues: Does the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act require that prison officials actually consider and demonstrate a sufficient basis for rejecting widely accepted accommodations to traditional religious practices as part of their burden of proving that they have chosen the least restrictive means of furthering their asserted governmental interests?

History: Petition was filed on 2/06/14. Petition was granted, vacated and remanded on 1/26/15.

*Holding Below: Knight v. Thompson. 723 F.3d. 837. The district court's judgment in favor of the Alabama Department of Corrections is affirmed. The ADOC carried its burden under the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act to demonstrate that its hair-length policy was the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling governmental interests in security, discipline, hygiene and safety within its prisons and in the public's safety in the event of escapes and alteration of appearances. The equal protection claim was meritless, because there was no evidence that the hair-length policy discriminated on the basis of race or religion.

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Cert Denied

Stop the Casino 101 v. Brown
Briefs and Pleadings
Docket No. 14-1236

*Issues: (1) Does the federal government have the unilateral power to alter California's historic territorial jurisdiction and transfer that jurisdiction to an Indian tribe? (2) If so, should a federal statute restoring tribal recognition and authorizing the U.S. to accept fee title to unspecified private lands within California's borders be construed as transferring territorial jurisdiction from the state to the tribe when the statutory language is silent on that subject? (3) Can a state's territorial jurisdiction shift by implication, or is an express, unequivocal acceptance of jurisdiction required under 40 U.S.C. 3112?

History: Petition was filed on 4/09/15. Petition was denied on 5/26/15.

*Holding Below: Stop the Casino 101 v. Brown, 230 Cal. App. 4th 280. The district court's grant of summary judgment, rejecting the petitioners attempt to invalidate the compact between the state and the Native American tribe permitting the operation of a gaming casino, is affirmed. The petitioners argue that the transfer of title to the casino site to the United States in trust for the tribe did not confer jurisdiction over this site on the tribe, so that federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, 25 U.S.C. 2701 et seq., does not authorize gaming activities on that site and the California Constitution in turn does not permit the governor to enter a compact authorizing gaming on that site. This premise is incorrect. The suggestion that a tribe does not necessarily exercise some jurisdiction over its reservation is at odds with traditional notions of Indian sovereignty and the congressional goal of Indian self-government, including its overriding goal of encouraging tribal self-sufficiency and economic development.

Western Sky Financial v. Jackson
Briefs and Pleadings
Docket No. 14-991

*Issues: (1) Is the validity of an arbitration clause determined exclusively by the statutory requirements of the Federal Arbitration Act, as held by the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the First, Fourth, Fifth and Eleventh Circuits?or by a common law ?reasonableness? test, as held by the Seventh Circuit below? (2) May a court apply a state law defense in a manner that disfavors arbitration by voiding an entire arbitration clause merely because the contractually-designated arbitrator is unavailable, notwithstanding the FAA's express directive to appoint a substitute arbitrator? (3) Did the Seventh Circuit erroneously?and in conflict with the Second and Eighth Circuits?require a non-tribal-member's physical entry onto the relevant Indian reservation in connection with a transaction with a tribal member before ordering tribal court exhaustion of judicial claims arising from the transaction?

History: Petition was filed on 2/13/15. Petition was denied on 4/27/15.

*Holding Below: Jackson v. Payday Fin., LLC, 7th Cir., 764 F.3d 765. The borrowers' action against the loan entities shouldn't have been dismissed because the arbitral mechanism specified in the loan agreement was illusory. The arbitration forum selection clause was unreasonable under federal law and unconscionable under Illinois law, because the specified tribal forum didn't exist. Further, while the loan entities argued that the loan documents required any litigation to be conducted by an American Indian tribal court, tribal courts have a unique, limited jurisdiction that doesn't extend generally to the regulation of nontribal members whose actions don't implicate the sovereignty of the tribe or the regulation of tribal lands. The plaintiffs didn't enter the reservation to apply for the loans, negotiate the loans or execute loan documents. The loan entities therefore didn't establish a colorable claim of tribal jurisdiction, and exhaustion in tribal courts therefore wasn't required. The district court is reversed, and the case is remanded.

Wisconsin v. Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin
Briefs and Pleadings
Docket No. 14-792

*Issues: Does Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(5) permit shifting the burden to the non-moving party to justify the original judgment?

History: Petition was filed on 1/07/15. Petition was denied on 4/20/15.

*Holding Below: Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin v. Wisconsin, 2014 WL 5032493. The ruling of the district court, denying American Indians relief from an unappealed judgment upholding a state statute forbidding deer hunting at night off tribal reservations, is reversed and remanded. Uncontested evidence and greater experience with nighttime deer hunting since the passage of the ban suggests that a total ban is no longer (if it ever was) necessary to ensure public safety, the only potential justification for the a state ban on a normal Indian American activity authorized to the tribes on land ceded by them to the United States. The burden of production should be placed on the state, for as the record stands the evidence presented by the tribes that night hunting for deer in the ceded territory is unlikely to create a serious safety problem provides a compelling reason for vacating the 1991 judgment that prohibited Indian Americans from hunting deer at night in that territory.

Stockbridge-Munsee Cmty. v. New York
Briefs and Pleadings
Docket No. 14-538

*Issues: Where the petitioner's claims were filed within the statutory-limitations period established by Congress, did the court of appeals contravene this court's decision in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 82 U.S.L.W. 4361, 2014 BL 137694 (U.S. May 19, 2014), by invoking delay-based equitable principles to summarily dismiss all of the petitioner's federal treaty, statutory and common-law claims, including one for money damages as upheld by this court in Cnty. of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y., 470 U.S. 226 (1985)?

History: Petition was filed on 11/07/14. Petition was denied on 3/9/15.

*Holding Below: Stockbridge-Munsee Cmty. v. New York, 756 F.3d 163. It is well-settled that claims by an Indian tribe alleging that it was unlawfully dispossessed of land early in America's history are barred by the equitable principles of laches, acquiescence, and impossibility. This court therefore affirms the district court's dismissal of the claims asserting title of the tract of land. The recent Supreme Court decision in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 82 U.S.L.W. 4361, 2014 BL 137694 (U.S. May 19, 2014), does not alter the analysis. Petrella establishes that the equitable defense of laches cannot be used to defeat a claim filed within the Copyright Act's three-year statute of limitations. The Supreme Court commented on the applicability of laches to actions at law generally, but ultimately confined its ruling ?to the position that, in face of a statute of limitations enacted by Congress, laches cannot be invoked to bar legal relief.? Congress has not fixed a statute of limitations for Indian land claims.

Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation, et al. v. Robert McKenna, Attorney General of Washington
Briefs and Pleadings
Docket No. 14-947

*Issues: May federal courts called upon to enforce Indian treaty protections in tribal challenges to state regulation enter judgment against the Indian Tribe without considering evidence and entering findings of fact on the Indians' understanding of the United States' treaty promises?

History: Petition was filed on 2/02/15. Petition was denied on 3/9/15.

*Holding Below: King Mountain Tobacco Co. v. McKenna, 768 F.3d 989 This court affirms the judgment of the district court that the treaty does not preclude the state from regulating tobacco products sold nationally and that, as a nondiscriminatory state law that is not expressly preempted by federal law, the statute does require the company to place money into escrow to reimburse the state for health care costs related to the use of tobacco products. Even though legal ambiguities are resolved to the benefit of the Indians when considering treaties, courts cannot ignore plain language that, viewed in historical context and given a fair appraisal, clearly runs counter to a tribe's later claims. Here, the district court did not err by declining to make findings regarding the treaty's meaning to the Yakama people at the time of its signing, because the meaning to the Yakama people cannot overcome the clear words of the treaty.

Gatzaros v. Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians
Briefs and Pleadings
Docket No. 14-665

*Issues: (1) Does the majority opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit conflict with the decisions of this court and other circuit courts of appeals, thereby changing the well-established rules of contract construction, which require that specific contract provisions govern over general provisions to resolve disputes caused by two conflicting contract provisions? (2) Is the majority opinion in direct conflict with the decisions of this court, other circuit courts of appeal and the fundamental rules of contract construction, which require the application of extrinsic evidence when there is an ambiguity caused by conflicting contractual language? (3) Is the majority opinion, in upholding the judicial rewriting of paragraph 8 of the guaranty, in direct conflict with the decision of this court and the other circuit courts of appeals, which have held the courts must give effect to contracts as written by the parties, and cannot rewrite them? (4) Does the majority's failure to find that the respondents waived their contract defenses contradict established case law in the other circuit courts of appeals that a guaranty is a contract that must be enforced as written? (5) Does the majority's opinion conflict with the well-settled standard for reviewing a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) when it failed to view the facts in the light most favorable to the petitioners or accept their well-pleaded allegations?

History: Petition was filed on 12/02/14. Petition was denied on 2/23/15.

*Holding Below: Gatzaros v. Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. 575 Fed.Appx. 549. The district court's dismissal is affirmed. The petitioners can not unilaterally modify the guaranty agreement with the tribe and gaming authority for two reasons. First, the tribe and gaming authority did not agree in writing to the modification, as paragraph 10 of the guaranty agreement requires. Second, the petitioners misconstrue the meaning of the waiver language found in paragraph 8 of the guaranty agreement. There is also no merit in the petitioners? contention that the tribe and the gaming authority waived all defenses they may have to the petitioners? claim.

Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida Dept. of Revenue
Briefs and Pleadings
Docket No. 14-351

*Issues: Does sovereign immunity bar an American Indian tribe from seeking Ex parte Young relief from the unconstitutional enforcement of a state tax scheme merely because that relief might require refunds for taxes unlawfully collected in the future

History: Petition was filed on 9/25/14. Pertion was denied on 1/11/15.

*Holding Below: Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida Department of Revenue, 750 F.3d 1238. The tribe's complaint-which argued that a Florida fuel tax charged at gas stations outside of tribal land was unconstitutional-was barred by state sovereign immunity. The declaratory judgment that the tribe sought would have demanded that the tax collector award money from state coffers equaling the fuel taxes that the state revenue department would already have collected from the fuel supplier. Whether the tribe labeled the relief it sought as an 'exemption' or a 'refund,' such relief was compensatory and prohibited under the Ex parte Young doctrine. Therefore, the district court's dismissal of the complaint is affirmed.

MM&A Productions v. Yavapai-Apache Nation
Briefs and Pleadings
Docket No. 14-425

*Issues: May the authority of a tribal official who signs a waiver of sovereign immunity be established under the doctrine of apparent authority?

History: Petition was filed on 10/09/14. Petition was denied on 12/15/14.

*Holding Below: MM&A Productions, LLC v. Yavapai-Apache Nation, 234 Ariz. 60. The trial court didn't err to the extent it implied it wouldn't find a valid waiver of the American Indian tribe's sovereign immunity based on a theory of apparent authority. An American Indian tribe's authorization to waive its immunity by agreement must be express, contrary to the company's suggestion that an official cloaked with apparent authority may execute a valid waiver absent actual authority to do so. The trial court's judgment dismissing the company's contract action, for claims including alleged breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, is affirmed.

Friends of Amador County v. Jewell
Briefs and Pleadings
Docket No. 14-340

*Issues: In an action by a third party against the Secretary of the Interior under the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. ?551, may a putative Indian tribe invoke its sovereign immunity to prevent a court from reviewing the lawfulness of the Secretary's decision to recognize it as a tribe?

History: Petition was filed on 9/18/14. Petition was denied on 12/01/14.

*Holding Below: Friends of Amador County v. Salazar. 554 Fed. Appx. 562. The district court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the tribe was a required party under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 19(a)(1). As a result, the district court's judgment of dismissal based on the appellants' failure and inability to join the tribe as a required and indispensable party is affirmed. The tribe claims several legally protected interests relating to the subject of the action and the district court concluded correctly that disposing of the action in the tribe's absence would, as a practical matter, impair or impede the tribe's ability to protect these substantial interests. The district court also correctly concluded that joinder would not be feasible because the tribe enjoys sovereign immunity, despite the appellants' challenge to the validity of that federally recognized status.The court cannot simply turn a blind eye to the tribe's status in the Federal Register. Abrogation of sovereign immunity cannot be implied, but must be unequivocally expressed, and while the Administrative Procedure Act does waive the U.S.'s sovereign immunity in certain suits, it does not do the same for Indian tribes.

Hicks v. Hudson Insurance Company
Briefs and Pleadings
Docket No. 14-283

*Issues: Is an insurance company doing business with a federally recognized American Indian Tribe entitled to sovereign immunity for the acts and omissions it takes in furtherance of the business of insurance?

History: Petition was filed on 9/03/14. Petition was denied on 10/14/14.

*Holding Below: A writ of mandamus is issued, requiring the district court to dismiss the underlying case in its entirety. Defendant insurance company is entitled to sovereign immunity.

Marcussen v. Burwell
Briefs and Pleadings
Docket No. 13-1447

*Issues: (1) Should the Rooker-Feldman doctrine be overruled for denying all judicial relief by removing the subject matter jurisdiction of the federal courts to hear any civil action brought against federally mandated statutes enforced in state courts? (2) Does Congress have the authority to adopt laws intended to be primarily of exclusively enforced in the state courts?

History: Petition was filed on 6/04/14. Petition was denied on 10/06/14.

*Holding Below: The order of the district court, dismissing plaintiff attorney's case under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine as a collateral attack on a state court judgment, is affirmed. The questions raised in the appeal, attacking the doctrine and Congress's authority, are insubstantial.

Yowell v. Abbey
Briefs and Pleadings
Docket No. 13-1049

*Issues: (1) Did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit err in assuming facts not in evidence and finding that Yowell's cattle grazing ranges encompassed by the 1941 proclamation regarding the South Fork Indian Reservation were subject to Bureau of Land Management grazing regulations? (2) Did the Ninth Circuit err when it concluded that the BLM regulations and management applied to the ranges encompassed by the proclamation regarding the South Fork Indian Reservation? (3) Is Yowell's Article 6 treaty guaranteed vested right a clearly established federal right? (4) Are the Fourth Amendment prohibitions against unwarranted seizure of property and the Fifth and 14th Amendment guarantees of due process clearly established federal rights held by Yowell? (5) Did the Ninth Circuit err when they assumed facts not in evidence and held that the duty was discretionary and that the state defendants followed the applicable brand inspection procedures? (6) Did the Ninth Circuit err when it did not consider the factual allegations in the Yowell complaint to be true?

History: Petition was filed on 1/17/14. Petition was denied on 10/06/14.

*Holding Below: Yowell v. Abbey, 532 Fed.Appx. 708. The district court abused its discretion in requiring the Bureau of Land Management to withdraw its certification of Yowell's debt to the Treasury Department. The district court failed to identify and apply the correct standard for granting an injunction. The district court erred in denying the federal defendants' motion to dismiss and motion for reconsideration, because under Bivens v. Six Unknown Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), no action may lie against federal agencies like the Treasury Department, and no Bivens action may lie against federal officials for ?strictly enforcing rules against trespass or conditions on grazing permits.? Qualified immunity applied here because Yowell failed to establish that the state defendants either failed to follow the applicable state law, which thereby caused him to be deprived of a clearly established federal right, or that the state law was itself ?patently violative of fundamental constitutional principles.?


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Table of Contents

  • Cert Granted - Petitions for certiorari that have been granted in Indian law-related cases.
  • Cert Denied - Petitions for certiorari that have been denied in Indian law-related cases.

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From the Tribal Supreme Court Project

See the Tribal Supreme Court Project's July 15, 2015, Update Memoranda