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Supreme Court ruling could jeopardize Native American judicial sovereignty

By Amy R. Connolly
Supreme Court ruling could jeopardize Native American judicial sovereignty
The Supreme Court will decide, after hearing oral arguments Monday, if American Indian tribal courts can address civil cases against non tribe members. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Dec. 8 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court is set to decide if American Indian tribal courts can address civil infractions committed by non-tribe members, a case that could further chip away at the powers Native Americans have to govern over their land.

The case stems from an alleged sexual assault in 2003 of a 13-year-old Mississippi boy, a Native American, by a Dollar General manager, who is not a tribal member. The store is located on property owned by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

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The boy's family sued the store and the store manager in tribal court. A federal appeals court allowed the suit against the company to go forward, but Dollar General contends the court has no power to try the case. Federal law states tribal courts have jurisdiction over civil cases when a non-Native American is involved.

Dollar General argues "outsiders" may be treated unfairly in tribal court. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy were among the those who seemed to favor limiting the court's power.

"The people have a right to insist on the Constitution, even if Mississippi or the federal government doesn't care," Kennedy said.

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Left-leaning Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor seemed more sympathetic to the Native Americans.

"What's wrong with the tribal courts?" Justice Stephen G. Breyer asked. "We've seen lots of tribal courts, which I can't distinguish them in the fairness and procedure and so forth from every other court in the country."

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