By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
The Supreme Court affirmed a decision of a federal appeals court allowing a tribal court to exercise jurisdiction over a non-member corporation. In a deadlocked (4-4) decision, rendered on Thursday, June 23, the Court affirmed the ruling of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians hold tribal jurisdiction over the Dollar General Corporation in a lawsuit involving an alleged sexual assault of a young Choctaw tribal member.
“The result does not deprive the sovereign authority of our Tribal courts to hear and issue a final ruling in a lawsuit brought by Tribal members seeking to have their day in court,” Mississippi Choctaw Tribal Chief Phyliss J. Anderson said in a statement on Thursday afternoon. “Even though the Supreme Court was unable to reach a majority decision in our favor, I am grateful the result of the case nevertheless affirms the sovereign right of Indian tribes to assert civil jurisdiction, against a non-Indian entity in certain circumstances. This is a positive outcome, not only for our Tribe, but for all of Indian Country.”
The original lawsuit was brought in Choctaw Tribal Court in January 2005 against Dolgencorp, Inc. and Dollar General Corp. Dolgencorp owns and operates a Dollar General store on the tribal lands of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
According to court documents, “John Doe”, a 13-year-old Mississippi Choctaw tribal member, entered a tribally-operated job training program called Youth Opportunity Program (YOP). Dale Townsend was the manager of the Dollar General store during this time and agreed to participate in the YOP in the spring of 2003, and Doe was subsequently assigned to the store.
“Doe alleges that Townsend sexually molested him while he was working at the Dollar General store,” the court documents state. Doe alleged that the assault “caused him severe mental trauma” and the lawsuit filed in Choctaw Tribal Court sought actual and punitive damages of no less than $2.5 million.
“Dolgencorp and Townsend filed motions in the tribal court seeking to dismiss Doe’s claims based on lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The tribal court denied both motions.”
Upon these denials, the parties petitioned the Choctaw Supreme Court which held that subject-matter jurisdiction did, in fact, exist. The parties filed an action in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi on March 10, 2008 stating that the tribal court did not have jurisdiction over them. The District Court held that Tribe did have jurisdiction over the store located on their tribal lands. Dollar General filed an appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals who also ruled in favor of the Tribe.
The case, argued before the Supreme Court on Dec. 7, 2015, drew national attention and many leaders in Indian Country expressed their pleasure at the ruling released on Thursday.
“The USET Sovereignty Protection Fund (SPF) is pleased that today’s decision upholds the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians’ inherent sovereign rights to jurisdiction in this case,” USET President Brian Patterson commented in a statement.
He went on to say, “It is our hope that the Fifth Circuit decision will be influential on other circuits that may address similar issues. USET SPF remains focused on protecting the sovereignty of all tribal nations so they may exercise their right to regulate and adjudicate all civil matters that occur in Indian Country.”
Lucy Simpson, National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC) executive director, related, “The Supreme Court’s decision today upholds tribal sovereignty as well as the inherent authority of tribes to exercise civil jurisdiction over actions that occur on tribal lands.”
Cherrah Giles, NIWRC Board of Directors president, commented, “A lot was at stake here. Our native women and children face rates of sexual assault and abuse higher than any other population in the United States. The majority of these assaults are committed by non-Indians. So, it would be horrific to tell our tribes they can no longer protect their women and children from the majority of individuals assaulting them.”
Cheryl Hambry, assistant attorney general for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, said she expects the case to now return to the Choctaw court system.
Dollar General released the following statement to the One Feather on Monday, June 27, “Dollar General is disappointed in today’s result in the United States Supreme Court. Dollar General’s challenges to jurisdiction in this case is not about whether tribal members may pursue judicial relief against non-tribal members, but rather where those lawsuits should be heard. Dollar General believes that those lawsuits should be heard in a forum that is bound by the protections of the United States Constitution.”