471 U.S. 845 (1985), 84-320, National Farmers Union Insurance Cos. v. Crow Tribe of Indians

Docket Nº:No. 84-320
Citation:471 U.S. 845, 105 S.Ct. 2447, 85 L.Ed.2d 818, 53 U.S.L.W. 4649
Party Name:National Farmers Union Insurance Cos. v. Crow Tribe of Indians
Case Date:June 03, 1985
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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471 U.S. 845 (1985)

105 S.Ct. 2447, 85 L.Ed.2d 818, 53 U.S.L.W. 4649

National Farmers Union Insurance Cos.

v.

Crow Tribe of Indians

No. 84-320

United States Supreme Court

June 3, 1985

Argued April 16, 1985

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE

NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondent Crow Indian minor was struck by a motorcycle in the parking lot of a school located within the Crow Indian Reservation but on land owned by the State of Montana. Through his guardian, the minor brought a damages action in the Crow Tribal Court against petitioner School District, a political subdivision of the State, and obtained a default judgment. Thereafter, the School District and its insurer, also a petitioner, brought an action in Federal District Court for injunctive relief, invoking as a basis for federal jurisdiction 28 U.S.C. § 1331, which provides that a federal district court "shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States." The District Court held that the Tribal Court had no jurisdiction over a civil action against a non-Indian, and accordingly entered an injunction against execution of the Tribal Court judgment. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the District Court had no jurisdiction to enter such an injunction.

Held:

1. Section 1331 encompasses the federal question whether the Tribal Court exceeded the lawful limits of its jurisdiction. Since petitioners contend that federal law has divested the Tribe of its power to compel a non-Indian property owner to submit to the civil jurisdiction of the Tribal Court, it is federal law on which petitioners rely as a basis for the asserted right of freedom from Tribal Court interference. They have, therefore, filed an action "arising under" federal law within the meaning of § 1331. Pp. 850-853.

2. Exhaustion of Tribal Court remedies is required, however, before petitioners' claim may be entertained by the District Court. The existence and extent of the Tribal Court's jurisdiction requires a careful examination of tribal sovereignty and the extent to which that sovereignty has been altered, divested, or diminished, as well as a detailed study of relevant statutes, Executive Branch policy as embodied in treaties and elsewhere, and administrative or judicial decisions. Such an examination and study should be conducted in the first instance by the Tribal Court. Pp. 853-857.

3. Until petitioners have exhausted the available remedies in the Tribal Court, it would be premature for the District Court to consider

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any relief. Whether the federal action should be dismissed or merely held in abeyance pending the development of the Tribal Court proceedings is a [105 S.Ct. 2449] question that should be addressed in the first instance by the District Court. P. 857.

736 F.2d 1320, reversed and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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STEVENS, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

A member of the Crow Tribe of Indians filed suit against the Lodge Grass School District No. 27 (School District) in the Crow Tribal Court and obtained a default judgment. Thereafter, the School District and its insurer, National Farmers Union Insurance Companies (National), commenced this litigation in the District Court for the District of Montana; that court was persuaded that the Crow Tribal Court had no jurisdiction over a civil action against a non-Indian, and entered an injunction against further proceedings in the Tribal Court. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the District Court had no jurisdiction to enter such an injunction. We granted certiorari to consider whether the District Court properly entertained petitioners' request for an injunction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. 4 69 U.S. 1032 (1984).

The facts as found by the District Court are not substantially disputed. On May 27, 1982, Leroy Sage, a Crow Indian minor, was struck by a motorcycle in the Lodge Grass Elementary School parking lot while returning from a school activity. The school has a student body that is 85% Crow Indian. It is located on land owned by the State within the boundaries of the Crow Indian Reservation. Through his guardian, Flora Not Afraid, Sage initiated a lawsuit in the Crow Tribal Court against the School District, a political subdivision of the State, alleging damages of $153,000, including medical expenses of $3,000 and pain and suffering of $150,000.

On September 28, 1982, process was served by Dexter Falls Down on Wesley Falls Down, the Chairman of the School Board. For reasons that have not been explained, Wesley Falls Down failed to notify anyone that a suit had been filed. On October 19, 1982, a default judgment was entered pursuant to the rules of the Tribal Court, and on

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October 25, 1982, Judge Roundface entered findings of fact, conclusions of law, and a judgment for $153,000 against the School District. Sage v. Lodge Grass School District, 10 Indian L.Rep. 6019 (1982). A copy of that judgment was hand-delivered by Wesley Falls Down to the school Principal who, in turn, forwarded it to National on October 29, 1982.

On November 3, 1982, National and the School District (petitioners) filed a verified complaint and a motion for a temporary restraining order in the District Court for the District of Montana. The complaint named as defendants the Crow Tribe of Indians, the Tribal Council, the Tribal Court, judges of the court, and the Chairman of the Tribal Council. It described the entry of the default judgment, alleged that a writ of execution might issue on the following day, and asserted that a seizure of school property would cause irreparable injury to the School District and would violate the petitioners' constitutional and statutory rights. The District Court entered an order restraining all the defendants

from attempting to assert jurisdiction over plaintiffs or issuing writs of execution out of Cause No. Civ. 82-287 of the Crow Tribal Court until this court orders otherwise.1

[105 S.Ct. 2450] In subsequent proceedings, the petitioners filed an amendment to their complaint, invoking 28 U.S.C. § 1331 as a basis for federal jurisdiction,2 and added Flora Not Afraid and Leroy Sage as parties defendant. After the temporary restraining order expired, a hearing was held on the defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint and on the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction. On December 29, 1982, the District Court granted the plaintiffs a permanent injunction against any execution of the Tribal Court judgment. 560 F.Supp. 213, 218 (1983). The basis "for the injunction

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was that the Crow Tribal Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the tort that was the basis of the default judgment." Id. at 214.

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. 736 F.2d 1320 (1984). Without reaching the merits of petitioners' challenge to the jurisdiction of the Tribal Court, the majority concluded that the District Court's exercise of jurisdiction could not be supported on any constitutional, statutory, or common law ground. Id. at 1322-1323.3 One judge dissented in part and concurred in the result, expressing the opinion that petitioners stated a federal common law cause of action involving a substantial federal question over which subject matter jurisdiction was conferred by 28 U.S.C. § 1331. He concluded, however, that the petitioners had a duty to exhaust their Tribal Court remedies before invoking the jurisdiction of a federal court, and therefore concurred in the judgment directing that the complaint be dismissed. Id. at 1324-1326.4

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I

Section 1331 of the Judicial Code provides that a federal district court "shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States."5 It is well settled that this statutory grant of "jurisdiction will support claims founded upon federal common law as well as those of a [105 S.Ct. 2451] statutory origin."6 Federal common law as articulated in rules that are fashioned by court decisions are "laws" as that term is used in § 1331.7

Thus, in order to invoke a federal district court's jurisdiction under § 1331, it was not essential that the petitioners base their claim on a federal statute or a provision of the Constitution. It was, however, necessary to assert a claim "arising under" federal law. As Justice Holmes wrote for the Court, a "suit arises under the law that creates the cause

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of action."8 Petitioners contend that the right which they assert -- a right to be protected against an unlawful exercise of Tribal Court judicial power -- has its source in federal law, because federal law defines the outer boundaries of an Indian tribe's power over non-Indians.

As we have often noted, Indian tribes occupy a unique status under our law.9 At one time, they exercised virtually unlimited power over their own members as well as those who were permitted to join their communities. Today, however, the power of the Federal Government over the Indian tribes is plenary.10 Federal law, implemented by statute, by treaty, by administrative regulations, and by judicial decisions, provides significant protection for the individual, territorial, and political rights of the Indian tribes. The tribes also retain some of the inherent powers of the self-governing political communities that were formed long before Europeans first settled in North America.11

This Court has frequently been required to decide questions concerning the extent to which Indian tribes have retained the power to regulate the affairs of non-Indians.12 We

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have also been...

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