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Appeals court rules against tribal jurisdiction

A federal appeals court on Friday denied a Montana tribe's court jurisdiction over a fatal vehicle accident even though every party involved is Indian.

James R. Smith, a member of Umatilla Tribe of Oregon, filed a negligence suit against the Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Reservation in Montana. He was an enrolled SKC student at the time of the accident in which one passenger died. Smith and a third passenger suffered injuries.

At the time of the 1997 incident, Smith was driving a dump truck owned by the college for a vocational course he was participating in. The accident occurred within reservation boundaries but on a public U.S. highway.

Despite all of the factors, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the Salish and Kootenai Tribes do not have jurisdiction over the suit. In a unanimous ruling, a three-judge panel treated Smith the same as a non-Indian in explaining why the tribal court has no authority over non-Indians unless certain exceptions are met.

"We conclude that, because Smith is a non-member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, the tribal courts could only exercise civil jurisdiction over Smith if [the] exceptions applies," Judge Ronald M. Gould wrote for the majority. "Because neither exception applies, we hold that the tribal court lacked civil jurisdiction over Smith's claims against SKC."

The exceptions arise from the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Montana v. U.S.. In 1981, the court ruled that tribes, in general, lack jurisdiction over civil activities involving non-tribal members whether they occur on Indian or non-Indian owned land within the reservation.

Under the first Montana exception, tribal court jurisdiction is allowed if the non-Indian has a "consensual" relationship with the tribe. The 9th Circuit said Smith's enrollment did not qualify.

"If SKC wants its students to consent to tribal court jurisdiction on any dispute with it, it may ask them to so agree in connection with the enrollment process, and with a fair disclosure," the court observed.

Under the second Montana exception, tribal court jurisdiction is allowed if the non-Indian activity "threatens or has some direct effect on the political integrity, the economic security, or the health or welfare of the tribe." Even though SKC is a tribal entity, the 9th Circuit said the tribe didn't make its case on this point.

"It is undisputed that SKC is a Montana non-profit corporation and can be sued in that capacity, thus it can be fairly said that any political integrity risk was created by the tribe," the court wrote

Smith first filed his suit against SKC in tribal court. In addition to the negligence claim for the truck accident, he said the college destroyed evidence.

After the tribal court decided in favor of SKC, Smith challenge the court's jurisdiction in a tribal appeals court and in federal court. He lost both decisions last year before taking his case to the 9th Circuit.

Get the Decision:
Smith v. Salish Kootenai College (August 6, 2004)

Relevant Links:
Salish Kootenai College -