The Poarch Band of Creek Indians owns and operates the Wind Creek Casino in Atmore, Alabama. Photo: Wind Creek Atmore

Poarch Band of Creek Indians defends sovereignty in immunity case

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to correct a sovereign immunity decision.

The dispute arises from an incident involving a tribal gaming employee who is accused of causing an automobile accident in January 2015. Alabama's highest court ruled that the tribe could not assert immunity in the lawsuit.

"In light of the fact that the Supreme Court of the United States has expressly acknowledged that it has never applied tribal sovereign immunity in a situation such as this, we decline to extend the doctrine beyond the circumstances to which that Court itself has applied it," the September 29, 2017, decision stated.

The tribe believes the decision is wrong. A petition notes that the ruling conflicts with others from the Alabama judicial system, as well as those in other federal and state courts.

"Every state supreme court and federal circuit to address the question has held that tort suits are subject to tribal immunity," the February 18 petition to the Supreme Court reads.

Mike Crow, an attorney in Alabama, is representing the plaintiffs in the case. He told Lagniappe that tribes shouldn't be given a "get out of jail free" pass simply because to their sovereignty.

“I don’t believe when Congress granted immunity to the Indians back in 1934 that they could have ever imagined [tribes] would get into commercial industries like they have,” Crow told Lagniappe. “I’m also sure they never envisioned giving them a ‘get out of jail free’ pass for their commercial enterprises.”

Both Crow and the tribe's attorneys submitted final briefs to the Supreme Court in June. The petition was then scheduled for consideration by the justices at a closed-door conference on September 24.

But rather than accept or reject the petition, the justices instead asked the federal government to submit a brief, outlining its views. That means the case is in limbo until the Department of Justice responds.

The Supreme Court's last case on the issue was Lewis v. Clarke. The outcome wasn't favorable for Indian Country -- the justices held that tribal immunity does not always protect tribal officials or employees from lawsuits.

The petition is Poarch Band of Creek Indians, et al. v. Wilkes, et al. (17-1175).

Read More on the Story
SCOTUS may review Poarch Creek sovereignty case (Lagniappe October 10, 2018)

Lewis v. Clarke - Tribal Sovereign Immunity
Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: U.S. Supreme Court oral argument in Lewis v. Clarke

U.S. Supreme Court Decision:
Syllabus [Summary of Outcome] | Opinion [Sotomayor] | Concurrence [Thomas] | Concurrence [Ginsburg]

U.S. Supreme Court Documents:
Docket Sheet No. 15-1500 | Questions Presented | Oral Argument Transcript

Connecticut Supreme Court Decision:
Lewis v. Clarke (March 15, 2016)

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