Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation v. Wold Engineering, No. 82-629

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtBLACKMUN
Citation81 L.Ed.2d 113,104 S.Ct. 2267,467 U.S. 138
PartiesTHREE AFFILIATED TRIBES OF the FORT BERTHOLD RESERVATION, Petitioners v. WOLD ENGINEERING, P.C., et al
Docket NumberNo. 82-629
Decision Date29 May 1984

467 U.S. 138
104 S.Ct. 2267
81 L.Ed.2d 113
THREE AFFILIATED TRIBES OF the FORT BERTHOLD RESERVATION, Petitioners

v.

WOLD ENGINEERING, P.C., et al.

No. 82-629.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued Nov. 29, 1983.
Decided May 29, 1984.
Syllabus

The North Dakota statute (Chapter 27-19) governing the Indian civil jurisdiction of the state courts provides that jurisdiction shall extend "over all civil causes of action which arise on an Indian reservation upon acceptance by Indian citizens." North Dakota's Enabling Act provides that all Indian land "shall remain under the absolute jurisdiction and control of Congress." Petitioner Indian Tribe, which had not accepted state civil jurisdiction under Chapter 27-19, employed respondent Wold Engineering (hereafter respondent) to design and build a water-supply system on petitioner's reservation in North Dakota. When the project was completed, it did not perform to petitioner's satisfaction, and petitioner sued respondent in a North Dakota state court for negligence and breach of contract. At the time suit was filed, petitioner's tribal court did not have jurisdiction over a claim by an Indian against a non-Indian in the absence of an agreement by the parties. Although the subject matter of petitioner's complaint was within the general scope of the state court's jurisdiction, that court granted respondent's motion to dismiss the complaint on the ground that the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over any claim arising in Indian country, including a claim by an Indian against a non-Indian. The North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed. Interpreting Chapter 27-19 to disclaim state-court jurisdiction over a claim against a non-Indian by an Indian tribe that had not accepted jurisdiction under the statute, the court determined that the North Dakota Legislature had disclaimed jurisdiction pursuant to the federal statute (Pub.L. 280) governing state jurisdiction over Indian country and that such disclaimer, because it had been authorized by Pub.L. 280, did not violate either the North Dakota or Federal Constitution. The court rejected petitioner's argument that the jurisdiction that it had recognized in Vermillion v. Spotted Elk, 85 N.W.2d 432 (N.D.1957)—wherein it was held that the existing jurisdictional disclaimers in the State's Enabling Act and Constitution foreclosed civil jurisdiction over Indian country only in cases involving interests in Indian lands themselves—had not been extinguished altogether and that the North Dakota courts possessed "residuary jurisdiction" over a claim by an Indian against a non-Indian following the enactment of Pub.L. 280 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which amended

Page 139

Pub.L. 280 to require that all subsequent assertions of jurisdiction be preceded by tribal consent. The court also rejected petitioner's argument that to prohibit a suit such as petitioner's would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and deny petitioner equal access to the courts in violation of the North Dakota Constitution.

Held:

1. No federal law or policy required the North Dakota courts to forgo in this case the jurisdiction recognized in Vermillion, supra. Pp. 147-151.

(a) The exercise of state-court jurisdiction in this case would not interfere with the right of tribal Indians to govern themselves under their own laws. As a general matter, tribal self-government is not impeded when a State allows an Indian to seek relief against a non-Indian concerning a claim arising in Indian country. The exercise of state jurisdiction is particularly compatible with tribal autonomy when, as here, the suit is brought by the tribe itself and the tribal court lacked jurisdiction over the claim at the time the suit was instituted. Pp. 147-149.

(b) Nor would the exercise of state jurisdiction here be inconsistent with the federal and tribal interests reflected in North Dakota's Enabling Act or in Pub.L. 280. The legislative record suggests only that the Enabling Act's phrase "absolute [congressional] jurisdiction and control" was meant to foreclose state regulation and taxation of Indians and their lands, not that Indians were to be prohibited from entering state courts to pursue judicial remedies against non-Indians. Public Law 280 does not either require North Dakota to disclaim the basic jurisdiction recognized in Vermillion or authorize it to do so. Nothing in Pub.L. 280's language or legislative history indicates that it was meant to divest States of pre-existing and otherwise lawfully assumed jurisdiction. Pp. 149-151.

2. Where it is uncertain whether the North Dakota Supreme Court's interpretation of Chapter 27-19 rested on a misconception of federal law, its judgment will be vacated, and the case will be remanded to that court for reconsideration of the state-law question. Pp. 151-158.

(a) The court's incorrect assumption that Pub.L. 280 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 either authorized North Dakota to disclaim jurisdiction or affirmatively forbade the exercise of jurisdiction absent tribal consent appears to have been the sole basis relied upon by the court to avoid holding the jurisdictional disclaimer unconstitutional as applied in this case. Pp. 154-155.

(b) The manner in which the court rejected the availability of "residuary jurisdiction" leaves open the possibility that, despite the court's references to state law, it regarded federal law as an affirmative

Page 140

bar to the exercise of jurisdiction here and interpreted state law to avoid a perceived conflict. Pp. 155-157.

(c) The conclusion that the North Dakota Supreme Court's state-law decision may have rested on federal law is buttressed by prudential considerations. If that court is not given an opportunity to reconsider its conclusions with the proper understanding of federal law, this Court, contrary to the fundamental rule that it will not reach constitutional questions in advance of the necessity of deciding them, will be required to decide whether North Dakota has denied petitioner equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 157-158.

321 N.W.2d 510 (N.D.1982), vacated and remanded.

Raymond Cross, Boulder, Colo., for petitioners.

Louis F. Claiborne, Washington, D.C., for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

Hugh McCutcheon, Minot, N.D., for respondents.

Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This litigation presents issues of state-court civil jurisdiction over a claim asserted by an Indian tribe. The case, as it comes to us, is somewhat unusual in a central respect: the Tribe seeks, rather than contests, state-court jurisdiction, and the non-Indian party is in opposition. Cf. Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217, 79 S.Ct. 269, 3 L.Ed.2d 251 (1959).

Chapter 27-19 of the North Dakota Century Code (1974) is entitled "Indian Civil Jurisdiction." Section 27-19-01 of that

Page 141

Code provides that the jurisdiction of North Dakota courts shall extend "over all civil causes of action which arise on an Indian reservation upon acceptance by Indian citizens." In this case, the Supreme Court of North Dakota interpreted Chapter 27-19 to disclaim state-court jurisdiction over a claim (against a non-Indian) by an Indian Tribe that had not accepted jurisdiction under the statute. The court determined that the North Dakota Legislature had disclaimed jurisdiction pursuant to the principal federal statute governing state jurisdiction over Indian country, namely, the Act of Aug. 15, 1953, 67 Stat. 588, as amended, 28 U.S.C. § 1360, commonly known as Pub.L. 280. The court further concluded that the jurisdictional disclaimer, inasmuch as it was authorized by Pub.L. 280, did not run afoul of the North Dakota or Federal Constitutions. Because the North Dakota Supreme Court's interpretation of Chapter 27-19 and its accompanying constitutional analysis appear to us to rest on a possible misunderstanding of Pub.L. 280, we vacate the court's judgment and remand the case to allow reconsideration of the jurisdictional questions in the light of what we feel is the proper meaning of the federal statute.

I

A. Petitioner Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation is a federally recognized Indian Tribe with its reservation in northwestern North Dakota. Act of Mar. 3, 1891, ch. 543, § 23, 26 Stat. 1032. See City of New Town v. United States, 454 F.2d 121 (CA8 1972). In 1974, petitioner employed respondent Wold Engineering, P.C. (hereafter respondent), a North Dakota corporation, to design and build the Four Bears Water System Project, a water-supply system located wholly within the reservation. The project was completed in 1977 but it did not perform to petitioner's satisfaction.

In 1980, petitioner sued respondent in a North Dakota state court for negligence and breach of contract. At the time the suit was filed, petitioner's tribal court did not have

Page 142

jurisdiction over a claim by an Indian against a non-Indian in the absence of an agreement by the parties. Tribal Code, ch. II, § 1(a).1 The subject matter of petitioner's complaint, however, clearly fell within the scope of the state trial court's general jurisdiction. See N.D. Const., Art. VI, § 8; N.D.Cent.Code § 27-05-06 (1974 and Supp.1983). After counterclaiming for petitioner's alleged failure to complete its payments on the water-supply system, respondent moved to dismiss petitioner's complaint on the ground that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over any claim arising in Indian country.

B. At this point, in order to place respondent's jurisdictional argument in perspective, it is desirable to review the somewhat erratic course of federal and state law governing North Dakota's jurisdiction over the State's Indian reservations. Long before North Dakota became a State, this Court had recognized the general principle that Indian territories were beyond the legislative and judicial jurisdiction of state...

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201 practice notes
  • Empresa Cubana Exportadora v. U.S. Dept. of Treas., Civil Action No. 06-1692(RCL).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • 27 septembre 2007
    ...constitutional questions in advance of the necessity of deciding them." Three Affiliated Tribes of Ft. Berthold Reservation v. Wold Eng'g, 467 U.S. 138, 157, 104 S.Ct. 2267, 81 L.Ed.2d 113 (1984). Cubaexport's three as applied constitutional claims all assume, as an antecedent fact, that OF......
  • Parella v. Retirement Bd. of Rhode Island Employees' Retirement System, No. 98-1400
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • 18 septembre 1998
    ...J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment) (quoting Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation v. Wold Eng'g, P.C., 467 U.S. 138, 157, 104 S.Ct. 2267, 81 L.Ed.2d 113 (1984)) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Maine Green Party v. Maine, Secretary of State, 19......
  • Southern Ute Indian Tribe v. Amoco Production Co., Civ. A. No. 91-B-2273.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. United States District Court of Colorado
    • 13 septembre 1994
    ...226, 247, 105 S.Ct. 1245, 1258, 84 L.Ed.2d 169 (1985); Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation v. Wold Engineering, P.C., 467 U.S. 138, 149, 104 S.Ct. 2267, 2274-75, 81 L.Ed.2d 113 (1984); Ramah Navajo School Bd., Inc. v. Bureau of Revenue of N.M., 458 U.S. 832, 838, 102 S.......
  • Parrish v. Valero Retail Holdings, Inc., No. CIV 10-0398 JB/LFG
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of New Mexico
    • 15 juillet 2010
    ...is plainly contrary to the intent of Congress"); Three Affiliated Tribes of Ft. Berthold Reservation v. Wold Engineering, P.C., 467 U.S. 138, 152, 104 S.Ct. 2267, 81 L.Ed.2d 113 (1984) ("In some instances, a state court may construe state law narrowly to avoid a perceived conflict with fede......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
200 cases
  • Empresa Cubana Exportadora v. U.S. Dept. of Treas., Civil Action No. 06-1692(RCL).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • 27 septembre 2007
    ...constitutional questions in advance of the necessity of deciding them." Three Affiliated Tribes of Ft. Berthold Reservation v. Wold Eng'g, 467 U.S. 138, 157, 104 S.Ct. 2267, 81 L.Ed.2d 113 (1984). Cubaexport's three as applied constitutional claims all assume, as an antecedent fact, that OF......
  • Parella v. Retirement Bd. of Rhode Island Employees' Retirement System, No. 98-1400
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • 18 septembre 1998
    ...J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment) (quoting Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation v. Wold Eng'g, P.C., 467 U.S. 138, 157, 104 S.Ct. 2267, 81 L.Ed.2d 113 (1984)) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Maine Green Party v. Maine, Secretary of State, 19......
  • Southern Ute Indian Tribe v. Amoco Production Co., Civ. A. No. 91-B-2273.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. United States District Court of Colorado
    • 13 septembre 1994
    ...226, 247, 105 S.Ct. 1245, 1258, 84 L.Ed.2d 169 (1985); Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation v. Wold Engineering, P.C., 467 U.S. 138, 149, 104 S.Ct. 2267, 2274-75, 81 L.Ed.2d 113 (1984); Ramah Navajo School Bd., Inc. v. Bureau of Revenue of N.M., 458 U.S. 832, 838, 102 S.......
  • Parrish v. Valero Retail Holdings, Inc., No. CIV 10-0398 JB/LFG
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of New Mexico
    • 15 juillet 2010
    ...is plainly contrary to the intent of Congress"); Three Affiliated Tribes of Ft. Berthold Reservation v. Wold Engineering, P.C., 467 U.S. 138, 152, 104 S.Ct. 2267, 81 L.Ed.2d 113 (1984) ("In some instances, a state court may construe state law narrowly to avoid a perceived conflict with fede......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • Sovereign Immunity and State Regulation of Federal Facilities and Tribes
    • United States
    • The Clean Water Act and the Constitution. Legal Structure and the Public's Right to a Clean and Healthy Environment Part I
    • 20 avril 2009
    ...Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Barthold Reservation v. Wold Eng’g, 476 U.S. 877, 879 (1986) (citing Three Affiliated Tribes v. Wold Eng’g, 467 U.S. 138, 143 (1984)). For a more complete discussion of the complexities of Public Law No. 280, see Craig, supra note 91, at 28-30. 152. Id. (citing......

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