In the Matter of The EState F. Big Spring v. Conway

Decision Date19 May 2011
Docket NumberNo. DA 10–0099.,DA 10–0099.
Citation2011 MT 109,255 P.3d 121,360 Mont. 370
PartiesIn the Matter of the ESTATE OF William F. BIG SPRING, Jr., Deceased.Julie Big Spring and William Big Spring, III, Appellants,v.Angela Conway, Doug Eckerson, and Georgia Eckerson, Appellees.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

For Appellants: Joe J. McKay (argued), Attorney at Law, Browning, Montana.For Appellee Angela Conway: Ronald A. Nelson (argued), Burt Hurwitz, Church, Harris, Johnson & Williams, P.C., Great Falls, Montana.For Appellee Doug Eckerson: Linda Hewitt Conners (argued), Attorney at Law, Kalispell, Montana.For Amicus Curiae: Sandra K. Watts, Attorney at Law, Browning, Montana.Justice PATRICIA O. COTTER delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 Julie Big Spring (Julie) and William F. Big Spring III (William) appeal the order of the Ninth Judicial District Court, Glacier County, denying their motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. They challenge the District Court's assumption of jurisdiction over the probate of the estate of their father, William F. Big Spring, Jr. (Big Spring), an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe whose estate property was located within the exterior boundaries of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation at the time of his death. We reverse the District Court's order and hold that the Blackfeet Tribal Court has exclusive jurisdiction over the probate of Big Spring's estate (the Estate).

¶ 2 Additionally, we have reevaluated the test a Montana district court must apply in determining whether it may assume subject matter jurisdiction over a dispute that arises within the exterior boundaries of an Indian reservation, which we first articulated in State ex rel. Iron Bear v. District Court, 162 Mont. 335, 512 P.2d 1292 (1973). Upon review and analysis of the rationale underlying Iron Bear, we conclude the Iron Bear rationale and three-pronged test arose from a misinterpretation of controlling federal statutes and case law. Therefore, we overrule Iron Bear, setting forth a revised approach premised on controlling law in its place.

ISSUE

¶ 3 A restatement of the issue on appeal is whether the District Court erred when it assumed subject matter jurisdiction over the probate of the Estate when Big Spring was an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe and all of his estate property was located within the exterior boundaries of the Blackfeet Reservation at the time of his death.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶ 4 Big Spring died on July 26, 2003 at the age of sixty-two. Big Spring was an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe and, at the time of his death, was domiciled on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation (Reservation) in northwestern Montana. Big Spring's estate consisted of trust land and member Indian-owned fee land, all of which was located within the exterior boundaries of the Reservation. Big Spring is survived by three children, Julie, William, and Angela Conway (Angela); his ex-wife, Georgia Eckerson (Georgia); and his mother, Kathleen Big Spring (Kathleen). Georgia is the mother of Julie and William, and it is undisputed that Julie and William are enrolled members of the Blackfeet Tribe. Angela is the daughter of Big Spring and Lisa Wyrick. There are conflicting arguments as to whether Angela is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe. We deem it appropriate to our analysis to clarify Angela's enrollment status.

¶ 5 On appeal, Angela's counsel unequivocally state in their brief “Angela is not an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe,” seemingly to bolster their primary argument that this is not solely a matter of internal relations of the Blackfeet Tribe and that concurrent state court jurisdiction would not infringe on tribal self-government. This assertion, however, is at odds with numerous documents contained in the record that were submitted by Angela's counsel to the District Court, the District Court's findings of fact, and the Department of the Interior Indian probate judge's findings of fact. It appears counsel for Angela spent considerable time before the District Court providing documentation that Angela is a tribal member and daughter of Big Spring in an effort to support Angela's challenge to the probate of the Estate. It is therefore puzzling that counsel for Angela now argues for the first time on appeal that Angela is not an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe.

¶ 6 We conclude the record before us establishes that Angela is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe. First, Angela has a unique enrollment number and is identified as a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, evidenced by the Department of the Interior Indian Probate Decision, submitted with Angela's February 2, 2007 affidavit. Second, Exhibit A of the same affidavit is Angela's Descendent Form officially recognizing her as a descendent of the Blackfeet Tribe; and Exhibit C is a copy of Angela's medical records from Indian Health Services identifying her as a member of the Blackfeet Tribe. Third, in Lisa Wyrick's February 2, 2007 affidavit she states [a]ll rights and benefits that Angela Wyrick Conway has obtained as an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe were necessarily based on the Blackfeet Tribal Enrollment of William Forrest Big Spring, Jr. (Emphasis added.) Fourth, the District Court advised the parties during a June 13, 2007 hearing that [Angela's] enrollment was established by the tribe as a descendant and decedent has been identified as the father of Angela Conway by the Tribe.” Angela's counsel did not dispute this statement. Finally, addressing the Estate's argument earlier in these proceedings that Angela should not be determined to be Big Spring's biological daughter, the District Court concluded in its July 30, 2007 order that [t]his issue for the Estate, however, is complicated by findings made in Blackfeet Tribal Court that Petitioner Conway is an heir and recognition of Petitioner Conway as an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe.” Again, Angela's counsel did not dispute this statement by the court.

¶ 7 We defer to the Blackfeet Tribal Court's determination of Angela's status because, unless limited by treaty or statute, tribes have the power to determine membership, which is a power this Court and the United States Supreme Court have recognized. See Plains Commerce Bank v. Long Family Land & Cattle Co., 554 U.S. 316, 327–28, 128 S.Ct. 2709, 2718, 171 L.Ed.2d 457 (2008); Adams v. Morton, 581 F.2d 1314, 1320 (9th Cir.1978) (citing Cherokee Intermarriage Cases, 203 U.S. 76, 27 S.Ct. 29, 51 L.Ed. 96 (1906)); Zempel v. Liberty, 2006 MT 220, ¶ 20, 333 Mont. 417, 143 P.3d 123 (quoting Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, 436 U.S. 49, 55 –56, 98 S.Ct. 1670, 1675, 56 L.Ed.2d 106 (1978)). For the aforementioned reasons, we conclude for purposes of this appeal that the record before us establishes that Angela is an enrolled Blackfeet Tribal member.

¶ 8 We now turn to a recitation of the underlying facts so as to place this appeal in context. On September 29, 2004, Georgia filed an informal application to be appointed personal representative of the Estate in the Ninth Judicial District Court. In her application she represented that Julie and William were Big Spring's only heirs and that he died intestate. Simultaneously, Julie and William filed documents renouncing their priorities for appointment and nominating Georgia to be appointed personal representative. The Clerk of Court granted Georgia's application the same day. On June 1, 2006, Georgia filed her sworn statement to close the Estate and terminate her appointment as personal representative. The record indicates that between September 29, 2004 and June 1, 2006, Georgia satisfied creditors' claims, sold the Estate's only listed asset—member Indian-owned fee land near East Glacier—to Doug Eckerson (Doug), and distributed proceeds of the sale to Julie and William.

¶ 9 On December 1, 2006, Angela and Kathleen filed a petition in the Ninth Judicial District Court probate action for determination of testacy and heirs, challenging Georgia's handling of the Estate on numerous grounds. Relevant to the issue of subject matter jurisdiction that is before us, the petition asserted: (1) Georgia knew Angela was the daughter of Big Spring and intentionally excluded her from the proceedings; (2) at the time of his death, Big Spring had a valid will, executed September 15, 1965, which appointed Kathleen executrix and devised the entire Estate to her; and (3) Georgia transferred the Estate's only identified non–Indian trust asset to her ex-husband, Doug, for less than adequate consideration. To date, extensive litigation has ensued around these issues.

¶ 10 To complicate matters, in the six months between the time Georgia closed the Estate and Angela and Kathleen filed their petition, the United States Department of the Interior, Bureau Office of Hearings and Appeals, held a series of probate hearings (hereinafter “DOI Probate Hearings”) to settle the portion of the Estate that was Indian trust and restricted property. On November 20, 2006, Albert Jones, the DOI Probate Hearings judge, issued his findings of facts, conclusions of law, and order. In his decision, Jones found Big Spring's 1965 will valid and, by its terms, concluded that all of Big Spring's interest in the Estate was devised to Kathleen. According to Jones' final decision, no one objected to the finding of a valid will or the finding that Angela was Big Spring's daughter. During the hearings Kathleen executed a Renunciation of Interest with Retention of Life Estate.

¶ 11 The result of Kathleen's renunciation was that the Indian trust property passed as if Kathleen had predeceased Big Spring. Kathleen retained a life estate in Big Spring's Indian trust and restricted property with the remainder divided equally among Big Spring's heirs, Julie, William, and Angela.

¶ 12 On August 16, 2007, the District Court held a telephonic scheduling conference in...

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