Golden Hill Paugussett Tribe of Indians v. Town of Southbury

Decision Date03 January 1995
Docket Number15020,Nos. 15019,s. 15019
Citation231 Conn. 563,651 A.2d 1246
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesGOLDEN HILL PAUGUSSETT TRIBE OF INDIANS v. TOWN OF SOUTHBURY et al.

Michael D. O'Connell, Hartford, with whom was Matthew W. DenOuden, Hebron, for appellant (plaintiff).

Mark R. Kravitz, with whom were Penelope I. Bellamy and, on the brief, Jeremy G Zimmermann, Jeffrey R. Babbin and Noel E. Hanf, New Haven, for appellee (named defendant).

Richard Blumenthal, Atty. Gen., with whom were Gregory T. D'Auria, Asst. Atty. Gen., and, on the brief, Arnold B. Feigin, Asst. Atty. Gen., for appellee (intervening defendant State of Conn.).

Before PETERS, C.J., and CALLAHAN, BERDON, KATZ and PALMER, JJ.

PETERS, Chief Justice.

The dispositive issue in this consolidated appeal is the extent of the jurisdiction of the Superior Court to inquire into a plaintiff's authority to bring a lawsuit in the name of an Indian tribe. The plaintiff, representing itself to be the Golden Hill Paugussett Tribe of Indians (plaintiff), brought an action to quiet title to land located in the town of Southbury (town). In its complaint, the plaintiff requested that the town be designated representative of a proposed defendant class of current owners of that land. The state of Connecticut (state) and a party representing itself as the General Tribal Council of the Golden Hill Paugussett Indian Nation (council) moved separately to intervene as defendants, and the trial court granted both motions. Thereafter, the defendants separately moved to dismiss the action on the grounds that, inter alia, the plaintiff had no authority to bring this lawsuit in the name of the tribe. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court found that the tribe had not authorized the suit and rendered judgment dismissing the action. The plaintiff appealed from the judgment of the trial court to the Appellate Court, and we transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to Practice Book § 4023 and General Statutes § 51-199(c). We affirm.

This action arises out of events that are alleged to have occurred more than 300 years ago. In its complaint, the plaintiff claimed that its tribe, from time immemorial until the arrival of English colonists, had possessed, occupied and controlled much of present-day southwestern Connecticut. The plaintiff further claimed that, in a deed of 1706, the tribe had transferred to a group of colonists the tribe's Indian title to certain lands, but had "reserved" to the tribe the land now in dispute. The plaintiff admitted that, in the years 1733 to 1759, a series of additional deeds had purported to transfer to the colonists the reserved land as well. The plaintiff contended, however, that those later deeds had been void ab initio, because the transfers had occurred without the Colonial General Court's express consent in violation of General Court enactments of 1663, 1680 and 1717. In light of the alleged invalidity of the later deeds, the plaintiff contended that its "Indian title" 1 in the reserved land never had been properly extinguished, and, therefore, that it has a present right to occupy the land.

After filing its complaint, the plaintiff filed a notice of lis pendens in the Southbury town clerk's office and began to serve copies of the notice on all 1200 recorded current owners of the land. Alleging that the lis pendens was causing irreparable harm to the current landowners by making their titles uninsurable, the town filed motions for a temporary injunction against continued service of the notice of lis pendens and for discharge of the lis pendens itself. After a hearing, the trial court granted both motions. 2

Thereafter, all three defendants moved to dismiss the action on the grounds that the lawsuit, although brought in the name of the tribe, actually had not been authorized by the tribe. The trial court held an evidentiary hearing on the motions to dismiss, at which the plaintiff refused, on grounds of tribal sovereignty, to offer any evidence of its authority to sue on behalf of the tribe, other than copies of documents filed with the governor pursuant to General Statutes § 47-66i. 3 Those documents did not directly authorize any individual to sue on behalf of the tribe, but they did indicate that the tribe's "leader" was its "Traditional Chief," Chief Big Eagle. The documents also indicated that Chief Big Eagle had appointed his son, Chief Quiet Hawk, to be the tribe's "Council Chief." Although neither Chief Big Eagle nor Chief Quiet Hawk testified at the hearing, the parties stipulated that someone identifying himself as Chief Quiet Hawk had authorized the plaintiff's counsel to file the lawsuit.

In support of their motions to dismiss, the defendants offered testimony, which the trial court found credible, that Chief Quiet Hawk lacked authority to sue on behalf of the tribe. R. Michael Smith, a member of the tribe, testified that (1) notwithstanding the documents filed with the governor, the tribe was governed by an elected tribal council, (2) only the council could authorize a lawsuit in the name of the tribe and (3) in this case, the council specifically had decided not to authorize the action. Michael S. Haney, executive director of the American Indian Arbitration Institute, confirmed that pursuant to the customs and practices of the Golden Hill Paugussetts, only the tribal council could authorize a lawsuit in the name of the tribe. Haney testified, further, that a survey of the tribe's members disclosed no one who supported Chief Quiet Hawk in the bringing of the lawsuit. After finding that "the Council, and not Quiet Hawk, has control of the group calling themselves members of the tribe" and that the council "wishes the case withdrawn," the trial court granted the motions to dismiss. 4

On appeal, the plaintiff argues, for two reasons, that the trial court improperly dismissed the case. 5 First, the plaintiff maintains that the trial court had no jurisdiction to determine whether the plaintiff actually had power to act in the name of the tribe, as that question was a matter of tribal sovereignty not cognizable in civil court. Second, the plaintiff contends that, even if the trial court had jurisdiction to determine whether the plaintiff had authority to sue, the court was bound to make that determination solely on the basis of the documents filed with the governor pursuant to § 47-66i and was required to allow this suit to proceed because the individual who had authorized the suit was listed in those documents as a "leader" of the tribe. We disagree with both arguments.

I

The plaintiff's initial claim is that the trial court exceeded its jurisdiction when it decided that the plaintiff lacked authority to sue in the name of the tribe. 6 The plaintiff's claim requires us to examine the interrelationship of three propositions: (1) courts always have jurisdiction to determine whether they have jurisdiction; (2) courts lack jurisdiction over suits brought in the names of parties by persons unauthorized to sue on behalf of those parties; and (3) instrumentalities of the state have no jurisdiction over the internal affairs of bona fide Indian tribes. In essence, the plaintiff asks us to hold that the third proposition superseded the first two--that is, that because of tribal sovereignty, the trial court had no power to decide the jurisdictional question of whether the plaintiff had authority to sue on the tribe's behalf. In the circumstances of this case, however, we need not decide whether a tribe's inherent sovereignty outweighs a court's inherent power to decide its jurisdiction. Contrary to the plaintiff's implicit assertion, we are persuaded that all three propositions not only are compatible in this case, but are complementary, and that the trial court respected all of them by dismissing the action.

A

We first address the trial court's power to determine its jurisdiction. As we have held repeatedly, the power to determine its jurisdiction is one of the core inherent powers of a court. "[O]nce the question of lack of jurisdiction of a court is raised, [it] must be disposed of no matter in what form it is presented ... and the court must fully resolve it before proceeding further with the case.... [A] court must have jurisdiction to determine its own jurisdiction once that has been put in issue." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Castro v. Viera, 207 Conn. 420, 429-30, 541 A.2d 1216 (1988); accord Chrysler Credit Corp. v. Fairfield Chrysler-Plymouth, Inc., 180 Conn. 223, 227, 429 A.2d 478 (1980); Aaron v. Conservation Commission, 178 Conn. 173, 178, 422 A.2d 290 (1979).

As we also have held, "[i]t is a basic principle of law that a plaintiff must have standing for the court to have jurisdiction. Standing is the legal right to set judicial machinery in motion. One cannot rightfully invoke the jurisdiction of the court unless he has some real interest in the cause of action, or a legal or equitable right, title or interest in the subject matter of the controversy." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Unisys Corp. v. Dept. of Labor, 220 Conn. 689, 693, 600 A.2d 1019 (1991); Ardmare Construction Co. v. Freedman, 191 Conn. 497, 501, 467 A.2d 674 (1983). The standing requirement is "designed to ensure that courts and parties are not vexed by suits brought to vindicate nonjusticiable interests and that judicial decisions which may affect the rights of others are forged in hot controversy, with each view fairly and vigorously represented." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Rose v. Freedom of Information Commission, 221 Conn. 217, 223, 602 A.2d 1019 (1992); Board of Pardons v. Freedom of Information Commission, 210 Conn. 646, 649, 556 A.2d 1020 (1989); Maloney v. Pac, 183 Conn. 313, 320, 439 A.2d 349 (1981).

To fulfill these goals, the standing doctrine requires a plaintiff to demonstrate two facts. First, the complaining party must be a "proper part...

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