Affiliated Tribes v. Wold Engineering
467 U.S. 138 (1984)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Affiliated Tribes v. Wold Engineering, 467 U.S. 138 (1984)

Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation v. Wold

No. 82-629

Argued November 29, 1983

Decided May 29, 1984

467 U.S. 138

Syllabus

The North Dakota statute (Chapter 27-19) governing the Indian civil jurisdiction of the state courts provides that jurisdiction shall extend "over all civil causes of action which arise on an Indian reservation upon acceptance by Indian citizens." North Dakota's Enabling Act provides that all Indian land "shall remain under the absolute jurisdiction and control of Congress." Petitioner Indian Tribe, which had not accepted state civil jurisdiction under Chapter 27-19, employed respondent Wold Engineering (hereafter respondent) to design and build a water supply system on petitioner's reservation in North Dakota. When the project was completed, it did not perform to petitioner's satisfaction, and petitioner sued respondent in a North Dakota state court for negligence and breach of contract. At the time suit was filed, petitioner's tribal court did not have jurisdiction over a claim by an Indian against a non-Indian in the absence of an agreement by the parties. Although the subject matter of petitioner's complaint was within the general scope of the state court's jurisdiction, that court granted respondent's motion to dismiss the complaint on the ground that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over any claim arising in Indian country, including a claim by an Indian against a non-Indian. The North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed. Interpreting Chapter 27-19 to disclaim state court jurisdiction over a claim against a non-Indian by an Indian tribe that had not accepted jurisdiction under the statute, the court determined that the North Dakota Legislature had disclaimed jurisdiction pursuant to the federal statute (Pub.L. 280) governing state jurisdiction over Indian country and that such disclaimer, because it had been authorized by Pub.L. 280, did not violate either the North Dakota or Federal Constitution. The court rejected petitioner's argument that the jurisdiction that it had recognized in Vermillion v. Spotted Elk, 85 N.W.2d 432 wherein it was held that the existing jurisdictional disclaimers in the State's Enabling Act and Constitution foreclosed civil jurisdiction over Indian country only in cases involving interests in Indian lands themselves -- had not been extinguished altogether, and that the North Dakota courts possessed "residuary jurisdiction" over a claim by an Indian against a non-Indian following the enactment of Pub.L. 280 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which amended

Page 467 U. S. 139

Pub.L. 280 to require that all subsequent assertions of jurisdiction be preceded by tribal consent. The court also rejected petitioner's argument that to prohibit a suit such as petitioner's would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and deny petitioner equal access to the courts in violation of the North Dakota Constitution.

Held:

1. No federal law or policy required the North Dakota courts to forgo in this case the jurisdiction recognized in Vermillion, supra. Pp. 467 U. S. 147-151.

(a) The exercise of state court jurisdiction in this case would not interfere with the right of tribal Indians to govern themselves under their own laws. As a general matter, tribal self-government is not impeded when a State allows an Indian to seek relief against a non-Indian concerning a claim arising in Indian country. The exercise of state jurisdiction is particularly compatible with tribal autonomy when, as here, the suit is brought by the tribe itself and the tribal court lacked jurisdiction over the claim at the time the suit was instituted. Pp. 467 U. S. 147-149.

(b) Nor would the exercise of state jurisdiction here be inconsistent with the federal and tribal interests reflected in North Dakota's Enabling Act or in Pub.L. 280. The legislative record suggests only that the Enabling Act's phrase "absolute [congressional] jurisdiction and control" was meant to foreclose state regulation and taxation of Indians and their lands, not that Indians were to be prohibited from entering state courts to pursue judicial remedies against non-Indians. Public Law 280 does not either require North Dakota to disclaim the basic jurisdiction recognized in Vermillion or authorize it to do so. Nothing in Pub.L. 280's language or legislative history indicates that it was meant to divest States of preexisting and otherwise lawfully assumed jurisdiction. Pp. 467 U. S. 149-151.

2. Where it is uncertain whether the North Dakota Supreme Court's interpretation of Chapter 27-19 rested on a misconception of federal law, its judgment will be vacated, and the case will be remanded to that court for reconsideration of the state law question. Pp. 467 U. S. 151-158.

(a) The court's incorrect assumption that Pub.L. 280 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 either authorized North Dakota to disclaim jurisdiction or affirmatively forbade the exercise of jurisdiction absent tribal consent appears to have been the sole basis relied upon by the court to avoid holding the jurisdictional disclaimer unconstitutional as applied in this case. Pp. 467 U. S. 154-155.

(b) The manner in which the court rejected the availability of "residuary jurisdiction" leaves open the possibility that, despite the court's references to state law, it regarded federal law as an affirmative

Page 467 U. S. 140

bar to the exercise of jurisdiction here and interpreted state law to avoid a perceived conflict. Pp. 467 U. S. 155-157.

(c) The conclusion that the North Dakota Supreme Court's state law decision may have rested on federal law is buttressed by prudential considerations. If that court is not given an opportunity to reconsider its conclusions with the proper understanding of federal law, this Court, contrary to the fundamental rule that it will not reach constitutional questions in advance of the necessity of deciding them, will be required to decide whether North Dakota has denied petitioner equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 467 U. S. 157-158.

321 N.W.2d 510, vacated and remanded.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, J. and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS, J., joined, post, p. 467 U. S. 159.

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