Swift Transp., Inc. v. John

Decision Date03 September 1982
Docket NumberNo. CIV 81-1555 PCT VAC.,CIV 81-1555 PCT VAC.
Citation546 F. Supp. 1185
PartiesSWIFT TRANSPORTATION, INC., an Arizona corporation, and Ronald M. Hafner, a single man, Plaintiffs and Petitioners, v. Mary JOHN, a widow; Katie Mae John, a single person; Katie Mae John, as next friend of Rodney John and Phillip Jerome John, minors; Mary Lou Gold-tooth, individually, and Mary Lou Gold-tooth, as next friend of Randi Lou Gold-tooth and Raini Lou Goldtooth, minors; Robert Walters, in his official capacity as Judge of the District Court of the Navajo Nation, Tuba City, District, Arizona; The Navajo Tribal Courts, by and through its Chief Justice, Nelson McCabe; The Navajo Indian Tribe, through its Chairman, Peter McDonald, Defendants and Respondents.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Arizona


Daniel J. Stoops, Mangum, Wall, Stoops & Warden, Flagstaff, Ariz., for plaintiffs and petitioners.

Martha Blue, Ward, Blue & Itschner, P. A., Flagstaff, Ariz., for the individual defendants and respondents.

Katherine Ott, Vlassis & Ott, Phoenix, Ariz., for The Navajo Tribe, The Navajo Tribal Courts and The Navajo Officials.


CORDOVA, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on plaintiffs' application for preliminary injunction and on two motions to dismiss filed by defendants. For the reasons below, an injunction will issue and the motions to dismiss will be denied.


On or about November 13, 1980 members of two Navajo families, the Johns and the Goldtooths, filed a complaint in the District Court of the Navajo Nation, Tuba City District. John v. Hafner, No. TC-CV-468-80. The complaint seeks damages for personal injuries and property damage from defendants Ronald M. Hafner and Swift Transportation, Inc., who are nonmembers of the Tribe and non-residents of the Navajo Reservation. The complaint alleges that Hafner, while acting within the scope of his employment with Swift, negligently caused a collision with a pickup truck driven by Katie John. Jurisdiction is alleged under the Tribal Council's Resolution of February 13, 1980, a provision which extended civil jurisdiction to defendants who have "caused an action to occur in Navajo Indian country."1 The September 5, 1980 accident occurred on U.S. Highway 89 near Tuba City, Arizona on the Navajo Indian Reservation.

In February of 1981 Swift and Hafner filed an answer in Tribal Court denying liability and challenging jurisdiction of the Court. In November of 1981 Swift and Hafner filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. That motion was still pending in January of 1982 when the Tribal Court decided to stay its hand pending the resolution of this federal suit.

On December 16, 1981 Swift and Hafner (plaintiffs) filed the present action, naming the Johns and the Goldtooths (individual defendants), and certain Tribal entities and officials (Tribal defendants), to obtain a declaratory judgment that the Tribal Court lacks jurisdiction in John v. Hafner. The Complaint also seeks injunctive relief to preclude defendants from going forward with the Tribal Court action. As an alternative form of relief, plaintiffs request a writ of prohibition directed to the Tribal defendants to prohibit them from exercising jurisdiction in John v. Hafner.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Defendants have moved to dismiss on the ground that this Court lacks jurisdiction over the subject matter of this suit. The basic issue presented in this case is whether the Navajo Tribal Court has civil jurisdiction over non-Indians involved in an automobile accident on a U.S. Highway within the boundaries of the reservation. As outlined below, resolution of this issue requires an analysis of the Commerce Clause of the federal Constitution, statutes, treaties, and federal common law. As such, this action falls squarely within the general federal question jurisdiction conferred by 28 U.S.C. § 1331.2 Cardin v. De La Cruz, 671 F.2d 363, 365 (9th Cir. 1982) (Cardin); Babbitt Ford, Inc. v. Navajo Indian Tribe, 519 F.Supp. 418, 423-24 (D.Ariz.1981) (Babbitt Ford); UNC Resources, Inc. v. Benally, 518 F.Supp. 1046, 1048-49 (D.Ariz.1981) (UNC Resources).

Tribal Sovereign Immunity

In their motion to dismiss, the Tribal defendants seek to invoke the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity. As the Ninth Circuit has observed, "it is a well-established rule that Indian tribes are immune from suit. Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, 436 U.S. 49, 58, 98 S.Ct. 1670 1676, 56 L.Ed.2d 106 (1978)." California ex rel. Cal. Dept. of Fish & Game v. Quechan Tribe of Indians, 595 F.2d 1153, 1155 (9th Cir. 1979). The tribe's immunity also extends to tribal officials acting in their official capacity and within their scope of authority. United States v. Oregon, 657 F.2d 1009, 1012 n. 8 (9th Cir. 1981). Yet the tribe's sovereign immunity is not absolute. Id. at 1013. Given that the sovereign immunity is like all other aspects of tribal sovereignty, see Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, 436 U.S. 49, 58, 98 S.Ct. 1670, 1676, 56 L.Ed.2d 106 (1978) (Santa Clara), this Court concludes that tribal sovereign immunity is coextensive with tribal sovereignty. Babbitt Ford, supra, 519 F.Supp. at 425. This Court perceives no principled basis why sovereign immunity should bar an action if the conduct complained of is determined to be beyond the scope of the tribe's sovereign powers. This is especially true in a case, such as this, where tribal officials are named as defendants and only non-monetary relief is requested. See Larson v. Domestic & Foreign Commerce Corp., 337 U.S. 682, 69 S.Ct. 1457, 93 L.Ed. 1628 (1949); see also Beller v. Middendorf, 632 F.2d 788, 797 (9th Cir. 1980). The Court will consider the sovereign immunity issue together with the merits in the following section of this opinion.

Inherent Tribal Sovereignty

Defendants do not contend that Tribal Court jurisdiction over plaintiffs stems from any affirmative delegation thereof by Congress. See Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, 435 U.S. 191, 196, 98 S.Ct. 1011, 1014, 55 L.Ed.2d 209 (1978) (Oliphant). Rather, they maintain that the power to exercise such jurisdiction flows from the inherent sovereignty of the Tribe. Plaintiffs, on the other hand, raise a number of arguments in support of their position that the Tribe does not have the inherent sovereign power to require plaintiffs to appear and defend in John v. Hafner.

In weighing and assessing the validity of these arguments, the Court is guided by an ever increasing body of case law defining the limits of inherent tribal sovereignty. As the Supreme Court observed in United States v. Wheeler, 435 U.S. 313, 323, 98 S.Ct. 1079, 1086, 55 L.Ed.2d 303 (1978) (Wheeler), "the sovereignty that the Indian tribes retain is of a unique and limited character. It exists only at the sufferance of Congress and is subject to complete defeasance." See United States v. Oregon, supra, 657 F.2d at 1013. Tribal sovereignty is also restricted by inconsistent treaty provisions, Wheeler, supra, 435 U.S. at 323-24, 98 S.Ct. at 1086, Oliphant, supra, 435 U.S. at 206-08, 98 S.Ct. at 1019-1020, and by those portions of the federal Constitution that are "explicitly binding" on the tribes. Trans-Canada Enterprises, Ltd. v. Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, 634 F.2d 474, 476-77 (9th Cir. 1980); Babbitt Ford, supra, 519 F.Supp. at 425. Moreover, the tribes have been implicitly divested of many attributes of sovereignty by virtue of their dependent status. Montana v. United States, 450 U.S. 544, 563, 101 S.Ct. 1245, 1257, 67 L.Ed.2d 493 (1981) (Montana); Cardin, supra, 671 F.2d at 366; Knight v. Shoshone & Arapahoe Tribes, 670 F.2d 900, 902 (10th Cir. 1982) (Knight); UNC Resources, supra, 518 F.Supp. at 1050-52.

With respect to the various treaty arguments raised in connection with Count 2 of the complaint, this Court has previously held that the Navajo Tribe has not relinquished by treaty civil jurisdiction over non-Indians. UNC Resources, supra, 518 F.Supp. at 1050; see Babbitt Ford, supra, 519 F.Supp. at 426-27. Plaintiffs have presented nothing to persuade the Court that a contrary result is mandated in the present case. Accordingly, Count 2 of the complaint will be dismissed.

Count 3 of the complaint alleges that the exercise of Tribal Court jurisdiction in John v. Hafner constitutes an unreasonable interference with interstate commerce. In support of this position plaintiffs raise two separate but related arguments, neither of which has merit in light of Merrion v. Jicarilla Apache Tribe, ___ U.S. ___, 102 S.Ct. 894, 71 L.Ed.2d 21 (1982) (Merrion).

Plaintiffs first contend that the Tribe has violated the Commerce Clause itself by attempting to assert jurisdiction over an interstate motor carrier involved in an accident on a U.S. Highway.3 As the Supreme Court has noted, "reviewing tribal action under the Commerce Clause is not without conceptual difficulties." Id. 102 S.Ct. at 910. One of these conceptual difficulties is whether the Commerce Clause is even applicable to tribal action. The Merrion Court avoided the issue by simply assuming that tribes are bound by the Commerce Clause. Id. This Court will also decline to "break new ground in this area" since even if it is assumed that the Commerce Clause is binding on the Navajo Tribe, Tribal Court jurisdiction in John v. Hafner does not violate this Clause. Id.

In Merrion the Court analyzed the Jicarilla Apache Tribe's oil and gas severance tax in the same manner in which it would review the tax if it had been imposed by a state. Id. 102 S.Ct. at 911-12; see Complete Auto Transit v. Brady, 430 U.S. 274, 279, 97 S.Ct. 1076, 1079, 51 L.Ed.2d 326 (1977). In the present context, a proper analysis entails a balancing of the Tribe's interest against the burden imposed on the course of interstate commerce. See Kassel v. Consolidated Freightways Corp., 450 U.S. 662, 101 S.Ct. 1309, 67 L.Ed.2d 580 (1981). Under the particular circumstances of this case, it appears that the...

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