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Supreme Court asked to rule on tribal jurisdiction
THURSDAY, MAY 29, 2003

The Supreme Court is meeting today to consider accepting a case involving tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians.

Three former employees of a health clinic located on the Navajo Reservation in Utah want a tribal court to hear their claims. The plaintiffs, who are non-Indian, allege they were wrongfully terminated. They also lodged several other claims against San Juan County and San Juan Health Services, a special political district created by the state.

In a far-reaching December 1999 ruling, Navajo District Judge Raymond Begaye sided with the plaintiffs. He reinstated their jobs, ordered back pay, barred senior clinic managers from entering the reservation and imposed $10,000 in daily fines on the state and some of the attorneys involved in the case.

At the time of Begaye's decision, the clinic was run by the state and funded by a state-managed Navajo trust fund. The Navajo Nation has since taken over the clinic but the dispute has yet to be resolved.

The case ended up in federal court, where U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball -- after concluding that Begaye's ruling was "nonsensical" and "ludicrous" -- threw out the plaintiffs' claims based on state sovereign immunity.

The plaintiffs then sought review by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals but weren't successful here either. Calling the case "a procedural quagmire marked by a profound lack of clarity," a unanimous three-judge panel also refused to recognize the tribal court's authority but not for the reasons Kimball stated.

"[I]t is a long leap, and one we are unwilling to take, to suggest that the action taken by the Navajo court in this case was necessary to protect Navajo self-government or control its internal relations," Circuit Judge Carlos Lucero wrote last October.

In making its ruling, the 10th Circuit relied in part on Nevada v. Hicks, a 2001 Supreme Court case involving competing state and tribal sovereigns. The judges said there was "heavy presumption" against tribal jurisdiction.

The Hicks ruling has been heavily criticized in Indian Country as an infringement on tribal rights. Citing the case, tribal leaders are seeking legislation to restore tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians.

The ruling was also at the center of a closely-watched Supreme Court case that was decided last week. In Inyo County v. Bishop Paiute Tribe, the justices were asked to consider whether state police powers extend to tribal governments. The question was left open as the case was decided on other grounds.

The dispute being considered by the Supreme Court is actually a combination of three appeals involving the plaintiffs, San Juan Health Services and San Juan County. The Navajo Nation is not a party to the litigation.

The Supreme Court's decision whether to take the case will be announced next week. If accepted, it will likely be heard by the end of the year.

Get the Case:
MACARTHUR v. SAN JUAN HEALTH SERVICES DISTRICT No. 014001 - 10/07/02 (10th Cir. October 7, 2002)

Relevant Documents:
Docket Sheet: Riggs v. San Juan County | Docket Sheet: San Juan County v. Riggs | Docket Sheet: San Juan Health Services v. Riggs

Relevant Links:
Navajo Nation - http://www.navajo.org

Related Stories:
Supreme Court rebuffs tribe in immunity case (5/20)
It could have been a lot worse for Indian Country (5/20)
Appeals court won't recognize tribal authority (10/15)
Tribes rally in support of sovereignty (10/8)
Tribes seek to overturn Supreme Court (2/27)
Inouye challenges tribes on sovereignty (2/26)
Tribe wants jurisdiction over clinic (01/15)
Supreme Court bars state officials from tribal suit (6/26)
O'Connor defends tribes amidst squabbling (6/26)

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