On October 5, 2023, the Arizona Court of Appeals issued a decision upholding tribal jurisdiction and refusing to expand U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Strate v. A-1 Contractors, 520 U.S. 438 (1997). In Strate, the Supreme Court ruled that a tribal court lacked civil jurisdiction over a personal injury case between two non-Indians on a state highway within the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The Supreme Court treated the state highway as the equivalent of non-Indian fee land and, following Montana v. United States, 450 U.S. 544 (1981), issued a decision limiting tribal civil jurisdiction over the state highway.
In Medina v. Chee, a non-tribal member attempted to bring a civil case against a tribal member in state court for an accident that occurred on a state highway within the Navajo Reservation. The Arizona Court of Appeals dismissed the case, refused to expand the holding in Strate, and ruled that the state court does not have jurisdiction. The decision upheld tribal court jurisdiction for certain cases on state highways. The decision is available here.
The Arizona Court of Appeals relied on the holding in Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217 (1959), which found that absent federal legislation, state courts may not exercise jurisdiction over on-reservation activity when doing so would infringe on the rights of tribes to make their own laws and govern themselves. Based on this holding, the Court of Appeals determined that granting an easement to the state for a highway does not alter the status of the highway as Indian country.
The non-tribal member plaintiff in Medina pointed to Montana and specifically Strate to argue that a stretch of state highway within the boundaries of a reservation is non-Indian fee land for purposes of jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument.
Instead, the Court of Appeals found that Strate was limited to tribal court actions brought against non-tribal members. The Court of Appeals went on to explain that the Supreme Court’s decision in Montana does not overrule its prior decision in Williams. Instead, the Court of Appeals explained that these cases outlined separate analytic frameworks for jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals also explained that the Montana line of cases explore the extent of tribal court jurisdiction over non-tribal members, while the Williams line of cases consider the scope of state court jurisdiction over tribal members.
According to the Court of Appeals, membership status is determinative. In Medina, the plaintiff attempted to pull an enrolled tribal member into state court. Finding that state court jurisdiction over the dispute would infringe upon the authority of the Navajo Nation to govern its members, the Court of Appeals affirmed that the state court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the dispute, holding that a plaintiff cannot hale a tribal member into state court for a civil tort action arising from conduct occurring on a state-maintained highway within the boundaries of the reservation.
Patterson Earnhart Real Bird & Wilson LLP is dedicated to the representation of American Indian tribes, tribal entities, and individual Indians across the United States. Our mission is to support and advance the sovereignty, self-sufficiency, and self-governance of our tribal clients.
To learn more about how we can assist your tribe, contact our Colorado office at 303-926-5292.