Ronald Mann: Supreme Court case might hurt tribes in the future

Native women and their supporters rallied at the U.S. Supreme Court on December 7, 2015, as the justices heard Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Photo by Indianz.Com

In an analysis for SCOTUSBlog, Ronald Mann thinks the Menominee Nation should have accepted defeat in Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin v. US, a contract support costs case, rather than end up with defeat at the U.S. Supreme Court:
First, the opinion explains that the standard test for equitable tolling requires the tribe to show both diligence and that extraordinary circumstances prevented compliance. The tribe argued that the factors should be considered together, and that the lack of extraordinary circumstances, standing alone, is not enough to justify dismissing its complaint. The Court disagreed, emphasizing that it repeatedly has characterized the test for equitable tolling as having two “‘elements,’ not merely factors of indeterminate or commensurable weight.”

Second, the opinion explains that the “extraordinary circumstances” prong requires something “external,” “beyond the [litigant’s] control.” The Court points to the classic formulation of the test as requiring evidence of something that “stood in [the claimant’s] way.” Because the tribe’s “mistaken reliance on the putative Cherokee Nation class action was not an obstacle beyond its control,” the tribe could not satisfy that prong of the standard. Quoting from an earlier case, the Court concludes that “[t]his mistake was fundamentally no different from a garden variety claim of excusable neglect.”

So what can be made of this case? Perhaps it provides a lesson in the value of centralized control of the Supreme Court docket. The reaction of the Justices at the argument (and in today’s opinion) suggests that the facts in this case were not at all persuasive. Perhaps the tribe should have recognized that before bringing this case to the Court. Brought to a decision by the Court, the case is likely to cast a shadow over equitable tolling cases for years to come. Future Indian tribes with similar problems may well wish that the tribe in this case had accepted its defeat at the court of appeals without pushing for such a stern limitation on the doctrine from the Supreme Court itself.

Get the Story:
Opinion analysis by Ronald Mann: Justices rebuff tribe’s claim for equitable tolling in government-contract dispute (SCOTUSBlog 1/25)

Also Today:
Supreme Court rules equitable tolling does not apply to tribe's contract claim (Jurist 1/25)
SCOTUS Holds Tribe's Delay Fatal To Its Claims (Courthouse News Service 1/25)

Supreme Court Decision:
Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin v. United States (January 25, 2015)

Supreme Court Documents:
Oral Argument Transcript | Question Presented

DC Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin v. USA (September 2, 2014)

Federal Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Arctic Slope Native Association v. Sebelius (November 9, 2012)

Supreme Court Decisions:
Salazar v. Ramah Navajo Chapter (June 18, 2012)
Cherokee Nation v. Leavitt (March 1, 2005)

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