Fort Belknap Tribe cites immunity in feud over reservation road

President Mark Azure, left, and Vice President George Horse Capture Jr. of the Fort Belknap Indian Community in Montana. Photo from Facebook

The Fort Belknap Indian Community of Montana is ignoring a subpoena issued as part of a lawsuit over a disputed road on the reservation.

Terryl Matt, a tribal member, sued the federal government in March, accusing the Bureau of Indian Affairs of building the road across her property without her consent. The complaint seeks more than $5 million for alleged damages to her ranch.

The tribe is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit. But Matt is seeking a court order to force President Mark Azure to turn over documents related to the project.

The tribe, though, says the federal court lacks jurisdiction over Matt or any other officials and employees who also have been hit with subpoenas. A brief filed late last month cites the doctrine of sovereign immunity.

“Under the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity, an Indian tribe is subject to suit only where Congress has authorized the suit or the tribe has waived its immunity,” the August 31 filing stated. “This court does not have the authority to compel non-party employees/officials of the council to testify or produce records.”

But Matt, who is an attorney, contends her request of Azure does not implicate the tribe's sovereignty.

"Mr. Azure is President of the Fort Belknap Tribes and custodian of the records requested," her motion to compel stated. "Tribal sovereign immunity is no shield to subpoenas issued in federal court actions. Tribal sovereign immunity may protect a tribe from civil actions against it unless the tribe has consented. However, 'service of a federal subpoena on an employee of an entity of a tribe is neither a suit, nor one against a tribe.'"

The federal government has not taken a position on the merits of the motion to compel but did not file an objection to it.

Matt previously sued the tribe in March 2012 in connection with the road. But the case was dismissed within three months due to lack of jurisdiction.

The road at issue was originally constructed in June 2011 in the wake of heavy rains on the reservation. Matt contends the work has led to continual flooding of her ranch.

Get the Story:
Tribe defies subpoena in $5 million lawsuit (The Great Falls Tribune 9/23)

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