9th Circuit rules in Rodeo-Chediski Fire case
A non-Indian woman who was charged by the White Mountain Apache Tribe for contributing to the largest fire in Arizona history must exhaust her remedies in tribal court, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday.

Valinda Jo Elliott was lost on the Fort Apache Reservation when she started a fire that merged into another one. The Rodeo-Chediski Fire ended up burning more than 275,000 acres of tribal lands.

The tribe charged Elliott with violating tribal laws and regulations. She sought to have the case dismissed, saying the tribe lacked jurisdiction over her as a non-Indian.

The 9th Circuit acknowledged that tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians is "limited." But the court said Elliott has to give the tribal courts a chance to decide her case on the merits before she can go to federal court.

"We are sympathetic to Plaintiff’s concerns about defending her actions in an unfamiliar court system," Judge Susan P. Graber wrote for the majority. "But, because tribal court jurisdiction is plausible, principles of comity require us to give the tribal courts a full opportunity to determine their own jurisdiction in the first instance."

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona declined to charge Elliott for her role in creating the fire but a tribal member was charged and convicted for starting another portion of the fire.

Get the Story:
Fire-starter case returned to tribe (AP 5/15)

9th Circuit Decision:
Elliott v. White Mountain Apache Tribe (May 14, 2009)

Related Stories:
White Mountain Apache judge upholds fire charges (1/21)