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

Annotate this Case

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

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF NORTH DAKOTA

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.

JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This litigation presents issues of state court civil jurisdiction over a claim asserted by an Indian tribe. The case, as it comes to us, is somewhat unusual in a central respect: the Tribe seeks, rather than contests, state court jurisdiction, and the non-Indian party is in opposition. Cf. Williams v. Lee,358 U. S. 217 (1959).

Chapter 27-19 of the North Dakota Century Code (1974) is entitled "Indian Civil Jurisdiction." Section 27-19-01 of that

Page 467 U. S. 141

Code provides that the jurisdiction of North Dakota courts shall extend "over all civil causes of action which arise on an Indian reservation upon acceptance by Indian citizens." In this case, the Supreme Court of North Dakota interpreted 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 principal federal statute governing state jurisdiction over Indian country, namely, the Act of Aug. 15, 1953, 67 Stat. 588, as amended, 28 U.S.C. § 1360, commonly known as Pub.L. 280. The court further concluded that the jurisdictional disclaimer, inasmuch as it was authorized by Pub.L. 280, did not run afoul of the North Dakota or Federal Constitutions. Because the North Dakota Supreme Court's interpretation of Chapter 27-19 and its accompanying constitutional analysis appear to us to rest on a possible misunderstanding of Pub.L. 280, we vacate the court's judgment and remand the case to allow reconsideration of the jurisdictional questions in the light of what we feel is the proper meaning of the federal statute.

I

A. Petitioner Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation is a federally recognized Indian Tribe with its reservation in northwestern North Dakota. Act of Mar. 3, 1891, ch. 543, § 23, 26 Stat. 1032. See City of New Town v. United States, 454 F.2d 121 (CA8 1972). In 1974, petitioner employed respondent Wold Engineering, P. C. (hereafter respondent), a North Dakota corporation, to design and build the Four Bears Water System Project, a water supply system located wholly within the reservation. The project was completed in 1977, but it did not perform to petitioner's satisfaction.

In 1980, petitioner sued respondent in a North Dakota state court for negligence and breach of contract. At the time the suit was filed, petitioner's tribal court did not have

Page 467 U. S. 142

jurisdiction over a claim by an Indian against a non-Indian in the absence of an agreement by the parties. Tribal Code, ch. II, § 1(a). [Footnote 1] The subject matter of petitioner's complaint, however, clearly fell within the scope of the state trial court's general jurisdiction. See N.D.Const., Art. VI, § 8; N.D.Cent.Code § 27-05-06 (1974 and Supp.1983). After counterclaiming for petitioner's alleged failure to complete its payments on the water supply system, respondent moved to dismiss petitioner's complaint on the ground that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over any claim arising in Indian country.

B. At this point, in order to place respondent's jurisdictional argument in perspective, it is desirable to review the somewhat erratic course of federal and state law governing North Dakota's jurisdiction over the State's Indian reservations. Long before North Dakota became a State, this Court had recognized the general principle that Indian territories were beyond the legislative and judicial jurisdiction of state governments. Worcester v. Georgia, 6 Pet. 515 (1832); see generally Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. at 358 U. S. 218-222. That principle was reflected in the federal statute that granted statehood to North Dakota. Like many other other States in the Midwest and West, [Footnote 2] North Dakota was required to "disclaim all right and title . . . to all lands lying within [the State] owned or held by any Indian or Indian tribes" as a condition for admission to the Union. Enabling Act of Feb. 22, 1889, § 4, cl. 2, 25 Stat. 677. The Act further provided that all such Indian land shall

"remain subject to the disposition of the United States, and . . . shall remain under the absolute jurisdiction and control of the Congress of the United

Page 467 U. S. 143

States."

Ibid. North Dakota's original Constitution contained, in identical terms, the required jurisdictional disclaimers. See N.D. Const., Art. XVI, § 203, cl. 2 (1889).

Federal restrictions on North Dakota's jurisdiction over Indian country, however, were substantially eliminated in 1953 with the enactment of the aforementioned Pub.L. 280. See generally Washington v. Yakima Indian Nation,439 U. S. 463, 439 U. S. 471-474 (1979). [Footnote 3] Sections 2 and 4 of Pub.L. 280 gave five States full jurisdiction, with a stated minor exception as to each of two States, over civil and criminal actions involving Indians and arising in Indian country. 67 Stat. 588-589, codified, as amended, at 18 U.S.C. § 1162 and 28 U.S.C. § 1360, respectively. Sections 6 and 7 gave all other States the option of assuming similar jurisdiction. Section 6 authorized States whose constitutions and statutes contained federally imposed jurisdictional restraints, like North Dakota's, to amend their laws to assume jurisdiction. 67 Stat. 590, codified, as amended, at 25 U.S.C. § 1324. Section 7 provided similar federal consent to any other State not having civil and criminal jurisdiction, but required such States to assume jurisdiction through "affirmative legislative action." 67 Stat. 590. As originally enacted, Pub.L. 280 did not require States to obtain the consent of affected Indian tribes before assuming jurisdiction over them. Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 amended Pub.L. 280, however, to require that all subsequent assertions of jurisdiction be preceded by tribal consent. Pub.L. 90-284, §§ 401, 402, 406, 82 Stat. 78-80, codified at 25 U.S.C. §§ 1321, 1322, 1326.

Even before North Dakota moved to amend its Constitution and assume full jurisdiction under Pub.L. 280, the North Dakota Supreme Court had taken an expansive view of the scope of state court jurisdiction over Indians in Indian

Page 467 U. S. 144

country. In 1957, the court held that the existing jurisdictional disclaimers in the Enabling Act and the State's Constitution foreclosed civil jurisdiction over Indian country only in cases involving interests in Indian lands themselves. Vermillion v. Spotted Elk, 85 N.W.2d 432. The following year, 1958, North Dakota amended its Constitution to authorize its legislature to "provid[e] for the acceptance of such jurisdiction [over Indian country] as may be delegated to the State by Act of Congress." N.D. Const., Art. XIII, § 1, cl. 2. Finally, in 1963, the North Dakota Legislature enacted Chapter 27-19, the principal section of which provides:

"In accordance with the provisions of Public Law 280 . . . and [the amended] North Dakota constitution, jurisdiction of the state of North Dakota shall be extended over all civil causes of action which arise on an Indian reservation upon acceptance by Indian citizens in a manner provided by this chapter. Upon acceptance the jurisdiction of the state shall be to the same extent that the state has jurisdiction over other civil causes of action, and those civil laws of this state that are of general application to private property shall have the same force and effect within such Indian reservation or Indian country as they have elsewhere within this state."

N.D.Cent.Code § 27-19-01 (1974).

On their face, both the 1958 amendment to the North Dakota Constitution and Chapter 27-19 appear to expand preexisting state jurisdiction over Indian country, rather than to contract it. In In re Whiteshield, 124 N.W.2d 694 (1963), however, the North Dakota Supreme Court reached the conclusion that Chapter 27-19 actually disclaimed all jurisdiction over claims arising in Indian country absent Indian consent. In subsequent decisions, that court adhered to its general view that, without Indian consent, "the State has no jurisdiction over any civil cause arising on an Indian reservation in this State." White Eagle v. Dorgan, 209 N.W.2d 621, 623

Page 467 U. S. 145

(1973). [Footnote 4] In each case in which the North Dakota Supreme Court declined to recognize jurisdiction, however, the defendant was an Indian; the court never had held squarely that an Indian could not maintain an action against a non-Indian in state court for a claim arising in Indian country. [Footnote 5]

C. Respondent's motion to dismiss rested on the restrictive jurisdictional principles of Whiteshield and its successors. Because the petitioner Tribe at no point has consented to state court jurisdiction under Chapter 27-19 over the Fort Berthold Reservation, respondent argued that the trial court lacked jurisdiction over petitioner's claim under Chapter 27-19 and the amended provisions of Pub.L. 280. Petitioner opposed respondent's motion to dismiss on the ground, inter alia, that the tribal consent requirements of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 were not meant to apply to a suit brought by a tribal government like petitioner. The trial court rejected petitioner's arguments and granted the motion to dismiss the suit for lack of jurisdiction, but did so without prejudice to a renewal of the action following compliance with the state and federal consent requirements. App. to Pet. for Cert. la.

On appeal, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed. 321 N.W.2d 510 (1982). Petitioner argued that the jurisdiction recognized in Vermillion 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. The court rejected this argument, adhering instead to its conclusion in Nelson v. Dubois, 232

Page 467 U. S. 146

N.W.2d 54 (1975), that any residuary jurisdiction was preempted by the tribal consent requirements contained in the Civil Rights Act of 1968. After reviewing the history of North Dakota's jurisdiction over Indian country, the court reaffirmed its prior holdings, observing that

"we have no jurisdiction over civil causes of action arising within the exterior boundaries of an Indian reservation, unless the Indian citizens of the reservation vote to accept jurisdiction."

321 N.W.2d at 512.

The court also rejected petitioner's argument that to prohibit an Indian plaintiff from suing a non-Indian in state court for a claim arising on an Indian reservation 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. [Footnote 6] The court relied on Washington v. Yakima Indian Nation,439 U. S. 463 (1979), in which this Court rejected an equal protection challenge to a state jurisdictional statute that relied on tribal classifications. In Yakima Indian Nation, the Court held that the unique legal status of Indian tribes under federal law permitted the Federal Government to single out tribal Indians in ways that otherwise might be unconstitutional, and that the state jurisdictional statute at issue there was insulated from strict scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause, because it was enacted under the authority of Pub.L. 280. 439 U.S. at 439 U. S. 499-502. The North Dakota Supreme Court concluded:

"Likewise, the people of North Dakota and the legislature were acting under explicit authority granted by Congress in the exercise of its federal power over Indians when our Constitution

Page 467 U. S. 147

was amended and Chapter 27-19 . . . was enacted."

321 N.W.2d at 513. As a result, any discrimination against Indian litigants did not violate the State or Federal Constitutions. Ibid.

Because of the complexity and importance of the issue posed by the North Dakota Supreme Court's decision, we granted certiorari. 461 U.S. 904 (1983).

II

Respondent does not dispute that petitioner's claim comes within the scope of the civil jurisdiction recognized by the North Dakota court in its Vermillion ruling in 1957. Respondent advances two arguments in support of the North Dakota Supreme Court's conclusion that state court jurisdiction no longer extends so far. The first is that federal law precludes the state courts from asserting jurisdiction over petitioner's claim. The second is that, regardless of federal law, the North Dakota Supreme Court has held that the trial court lacked jurisdiction as a matter of state law. We address these arguments in turn.

A

Although this Court has departed from the rigid demarcation of state and tribal authority laid down in 1832 in Worcester v. Georgia, 6 Pet. 515, the assertion of state authority over tribal reservations remains subject to "two independent but related barriers." White Mountain Apache Tribe v. Bracker,448 U. S. 136, 448 U. S. 142 (1980). First, a particular exercise of state authority may be foreclosed because it would undermine "the right of reservation Indians to make their own laws and be ruled by them.'" Ibid., quoting Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. at 358 U. S. 220. Second, state authority may be preempted by incompatible federal law. White Mountain, 448 U.S. at 448 U. S. 142. Accord, New Mexico v. Mescalero Apache Tribe,462 U. S. 324, 462 U. S. 334, and n. 16 (1983); Ramah Navajo School Board, Inc. v. Bureau of Revenue,458 U. S. 832, 458 U. S. 837-838 (1982); McClanahan v. Arizona State Tax Comm'n,

Page 467 U. S. 148

411 U. S. 164, 411 U. S. 179 (1973). We do not believe that either of these barriers precludes North Dakota courts from entertaining a civil action by an Indian tribe against a non-Indian for a claim arising on an Indian reservation.

Despite respondent's arguments, we fail to see how the exercise of state court jurisdiction in this case would interfere with the right of tribal Indians to govern themselves under their own laws. To be sure, the full breadth of state court jurisdiction recognized in Vermillion cannot be squared with principles of tribal autonomy; to the extent that Vermillion permitted North Dakota state courts to exercise jurisdiction over claims by non-Indians against Indians or over claims between Indians, it intruded impermissibly on tribal self-governance. See Fisher v. District Court,424 U. S. 382 (1976); Williams v. Lee, supra. This Court, however, repeatedly has approved the exercise of jurisdiction by state courts over claims by Indians against non-Indians, even when those claims arose in Indian country. See McClanahan v. Arizona State Tax Comm'n, 411 U.S. at 411 U. S. 173 (dictum); Poafpybitty v. Skelly Oil Co.,390 U. S. 365 (1968); Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. at 358 U. S. 219 (dictum); United States v. Candelaria,271 U. S. 432, 271 U. S. 444 (1926); Felix v. Patrick,145 U. S. 317, 145 U. S. 332 (1892); Fellows v. Blacksmith, 19 How. 366 (1857). [Footnote 7] The interests implicated in such cases are very different from those present in Williams v. Lee, where a non-Indian sued an Indian in state court for debts incurred in Indian country, or in Fisher v. District Court, where this Court held that a tribal court had exclusive jurisdiction over an adoption proceeding in which all parties were tribal Indians residing on a reservation. As a general matter, tribal self-government is not impeded when a State allows an Indian to enter its courts

Page 467 U. S. 149

on equal terms with other persons 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.

Neither are we persuaded that the exercise of state jurisdiction here would be inconsistent with the federal and tribal interests reflected in North Dakota's Enabling Act or in Pub.L. 280. As for the disclaimer provisions of the Enabling Act, the presence or absence of specific jurisdictional disclaimers rarely has had controlling significance in this Court's past decisions about state jurisdiction over Indian affairs or activities on Indian lands. Arizona v. San Carlos Apache Tribe,463 U. S. 545, 463 U. S. 562 (1983); see F. Cohen, Handbook of Federal Indian Law 268 (1982 ed.). [Footnote 8] In this case, the sparse 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. See H.R.Rep. No. 1025, 50th Cong., 1st Sess., 8-9, 24 (1888). To the extent that the disclaimer language of the Enabling Act may be regarded as ambiguous, moreover, it is a settled principle of statutory construction that statutes passed for the benefit of dependent Indian tribes are to be liberally construed, with doubtful expressions being resolved in favor of the Indians. See, e.g., Bryan v. Itasca County,426 U. S. 373, 426 U. S. 392 (1976); Alaska Pacific Fisheries v. United States,248 U. S. 78, 248 U. S. 89 (1918). It would be contrary to this principle to resolve any ambiguity in the

Page 467 U. S. 150

language of the Enabling Act in favor of a construction under which North Dakota could not provide a judicial forum for an Indian to obtain relief against a non-Indian.

We also cannot subscribe to the view that Pub.L. 280 either required North Dakota to disclaim the basic jurisdiction recognized in Vermillion or authorized it to do so. This Court previously has recognized that Pub.L. 280 was intended to facilitate, rather than to impede, the transfer of jurisdictional authority to the States. Washington v. Yakima Indian Nation, 439 U.S. at 439 U. S. 490; see also Bryan v. Itasca County, 426 U.S. at 426 U. S. 383-390. Nothing in the language or legislative history of Pub.L. 280 indicates that it was meant to divest States of preexisting and otherwise lawfully assumed jurisdiction. [Footnote 9] Section 6 of the federal statute authorized a State whose enabling Act and constitution contained jurisdictional disclaimers "to remove any legal impediment to the assumption of civil and criminal jurisdiction" (emphasis added). 67 Stat. 590, codified, as amended, at 25 U.S.C. § 1324. Similarly, § 7 gave congressional consent to the assumption of jurisdiction by any other State "not having jurisdiction." 67 Stat. 590. By their terms, therefore, both § 6 and § 7 were designed to eliminate obstacles to the assumption of jurisdiction, rather than to require preexisting jurisdiction to be disclaimed. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1968 amended Pub.L. 280 by adding tribal consent requirements, those requirements were not made retroactive; [Footnote 10] the 1968 amendments therefore did not displace jurisdiction previously

Page 467 U. S. 151

assumed under Pub.L. 280, much less jurisdiction assumed prior to and apart from Pub.L. 280. Similarly, while Pub.L. 280 authorized States to assume partial, rather than full, civil jurisdiction, see Washington v. Yakima Indian Nation, 439 U.S. at 439 U. S. 493-499, nothing in Pub.L. 280 purports to authorize States to disclaim preexisting jurisdiction. Indeed, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 granted States the authority to retrocede jurisdiction acquired under Pub.L. 280 precisely because Pub.L. 280 itself did not authorize such jurisdictional disclaimers. [Footnote 11]

In sum, then, no federal law or policy required the North Dakota courts to forgo the jurisdiction recognized in Vermillion in this case. If the North Dakota Supreme Court's jurisdictional ruling is to stand, it must be shown to rest on state, rather than federal, law.

B

This Court concededly has no authority to revise the North Dakota Supreme Court's interpretation of state jurisdictional law. Only last Term, in Arizona v. San Carlos Apache Tribe, supra, we noted that,

"to the extent that a claimed bar to state jurisdiction . . . is premised on the respective State Constitutions, that is a question of state law over which the state courts have binding authority."

463 U.S. at 463 U. S. 561. That principle is equally applicable, of course, with respect to jurisdictional bars grounded in state statutes. If the North Dakota Supreme Court's decision that the trial court lacked jurisdiction in this case rested solely on state law, the only remaining issue before this Court would be petitioner's argument

Page 467 U. S. 152

that the jurisdictional disclaimer here violates petitioner's federal constitutional rights. [Footnote 12]

It is equally well established, however, that this Court retains a role when a state court's interpretation of state law has been influenced by an accompanying interpretation of federal law. In some instances, a state court may construe state law narrowly to avoid a perceived conflict with federal statutory or constitutional requirements. See, e.g., United Air Lines, Inc. v. Mahin,410 U. S. 623, 410 U. S. 630-632 (1973); State Tax Comm'n v. Van Cott,306 U. S. 511, 306 U. S. 513-515 (1939); Red Cross Line v. Atlantic Fruit Co.,264 U. S. 109, 264 U. S. 120 (1924); see also San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon,353 U. S. 26 (1957). In others, in contrast, the state court may construe state law broadly in the belief that federal law poses no barrier to the exercise of state authority. See, e.g., Standard Oil Co. v. Johnson,316 U. S. 481 (1942). In both categories of cases, this Court has reviewed the federal question on which the state law determination appears to have been premised. If the state court has proceeded on an incorrect perception of federal law, it has been this Court's practice to vacate the judgment of the state court and remand the case so that the court may reconsider the state law question free of misapprehensions about the scope of federal law. [Footnote 13]

Page 467 U. S. 153

Here, a careful reading of the North Dakota Supreme Court's opinion leaves us far from certain that the court's present interpretation of Chapter 27-19 does not rest on a misconception of federal law. In determining the role played by that court's understanding of federal law, we are guided by the jurisdictional principles that have come to govern our calculation of adequate and independent state grounds. In Michigan v. Long,463 U. S. 1032 (1983), this Court ruled that

"when . . . a state court decision fairly appears . . . to be interwoven with the federal law, and when the adequacy and independence of any possible state law ground is not clear from the face of the opinion, we will accept as the most reasonable explanation that the state court decided the case the way it did because it believed that federal law required it to do so."

Id. at 463 U. S. 1040-1041. Although petitioner's constitutional challenge to the North Dakota Supreme Court's judgment means that we do not face a question of our own jurisdiction, see Standard Oil Co. v. Johnson, 316 U.S. at 316 U. S. 482-483, we believe that the same general interpretive principles properly apply here. The North Dakota Supreme Court's opinion does state that the North Dakota Legislature "totally disclaimed jurisdiction over civil causes of action arising on an Indian reservation," but it adds that the legislature did so "pursuant to Public Law 280," "[u]nder the authority of Public Law 280," and "under explicit authority granted by Congress in the exercise of its federal power over Indians." 321 N.W.2d at 511, 513. There are at least two respects in which these references and other language in the court's opinion leave it far less than clear that the North Dakota

Page 467 U. S. 154

Supreme Court's interpretation of Chapter 27-19 was not influenced by its understanding of federal law.

First, the court's treatment of petitioner's constitutional claims strongly suggests that the court's underlying interpretation of Chapter 27-19 would have been different if the court had realized from the outset that federal law does not insulate the present jurisdictional disclaimer from state and federal constitutional scrutiny. While we express no view about the merits of petitioner's federal equal protection challenge, we note that the North Dakota Supreme Court rejected petitioner's state and federal constitutional claims not because it viewed them as otherwise meritless, but because

"the people of North Dakota and the legislature were acting under explicit authority granted by Congress in the exercise of its federal power over Indians"

in disclaiming state jurisdiction. 321 N.W.2d at 513. The court had proceeded on a similar assumption before; in Gourneau v. Smith, 207 N.W.2d 256 (1973), for example, the court rejected an Indian plaintiff's jurisdictional claim based on the "open courts" provision of N.D. Const. Art. I, § 9, because the tribal consent requirements of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 were taken to foreclose jurisdiction:

"The courts of the State of North Dakota are open to all persons. But . . . Federal law prohibits State courts from assuming jurisdiction of civil actions involving Indians which arise on an Indian reservation, until such time as the Indians of that reservation have consented to such jurisdiction. Thus the courts of the State of North Dakota are open to Indians, if they consent to the courts' jurisdiction as provided by law."

207 N.W.2d at 259. The 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 is incorrect, for the reasons given above. That assumption, however, appears to have been the sole basis relied on by the North Dakota Supreme Court to avoid

Page 467 U. S. 155

holding the jurisdictional disclaimer unconstitutional as applied in this case. Because the North Dakota Supreme Court has adhered consistently to the policy of construing state statutes to avoid potential state and federal constitutional problems, see, e.g., State v. Kottenbroch, 319 N.W.2d 465, 473 (1982); Paluck v. Board of County Comm'rs, 307 N.W.2d 852, 856 (1981); Grace Lutheran Church v. North Dakota Employment Security Bureau, 294 N.W.2d 767, 772 (1980); North American Coal Corp. v. Huber, 268 N.W.2d 593, 596 (1978); Tang v. Ping, 209 N.W.2d 624, 628 (1973), it is entirely possible that the court would have avoided any constitutional question by construing Chapter 27-19 not to disclaim jurisdiction here, and it is equally possible that the court will reconstrue Chapter 27-19 that way if it is given an opportunity to do so.

Second, 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, the court regarded federal law as an affirmative bar to the exercise of jurisdiction here. The court stated:

"In essence, [petitioner] argues that North Dakota retained residuary jurisdiction over actions brought by Indians against non-Indians for civil wrongs committed on Indian lands. . . . That argument would be more convincing had the legislature of North Dakota not, pursuant to Public Law 280, totally disclaimed jurisdiction over civil causes of action arising on an Indian reservation. In re Whiteshield, 124 N.W.2d 694 (N.D.1963). In Nelson v. Dubois, 232 N.W.2d 54 (N.D.1975), . . . we rejected the concept of 'residuary' jurisdiction. We adhere to that decision today."

321 N.W.2d at 511 (emphasis added).

The court's reliance on Nelson v. Dubois is suggestive, because Dubois itself turned aside an attempt to invoke state court jurisdiction over Indian country on the ground that federal law barred the exercise of jurisdiction. Specifically,

Page 467 U. S. 156

the court held that it did not have "residuary jurisdiction" over a suit by non-Indians against Indians, even if the exercise of jurisdiction were assumed not to infringe on tribal self-governance under Williams v. Lee, because the tribal consent provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 preempted any exercise of state jurisdiction except in accordance with the terms of that Act. 232 N.W.2d at 57-59. The court recognized that its holding deprived the plaintiffs of any forum for their suit, but added:

"The solution to this most serious problem lies not with the State. Congress may amend its statutes; Indian tribes of this State may begin to assert their own jurisdiction. This State cannot exercise jurisdiction that it does not possess."

Id. at 59. [Footnote 14]

As noted above, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 in no way bars the exercise of jurisdiction in this case. The court's reliance on Nelson v. Dubois to dismiss petitioner's jurisdictional

Page 467 U. S. 157

claim suggests, however, that the court was proceeding on a contrary premise. In that event, it may well have adopted a restrictive interpretation of Chapter 27-19 to avoid a perceived conflict between state and federal jurisdictional mandates. [Footnote 15] By the same token, Nelson v. Dubois itself suggests that the court might recognize some measure of "residuary jurisdiction" here but for the mistaken belief that a federal jurisdictional impediment exists. Because we cannot exclude this possibility with any degree of confidence, the prudent course is to give the North Dakota Supreme Court an opportunity to express its views on Chapter 27-19, and thereby

"avoid the risk of 'an affirmance of a decision which might have been decided differently if the court below had felt free, under our decisions, to do so.'"

United Air Lines, Inc. v. Mahin, 410 U.S. at 410 U. S. 632, quoting Perkins v. Benguet Consolidated Mining Co.,342 U. S. 437, 342 U. S. 443 (1952).

Our conclusion that the North Dakota Supreme Court's state law decision may well have rested on federal law is buttressed by prudential considerations. Were we not to give the North Dakota Supreme Court an opportunity to reconsider its conclusions with the proper understanding of federal law, we would be required to decide whether North Dakota has denied petitioner equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment by excluding it from state courts in a circumstance in which a non-Indian would be allowed to maintain a suit. It is a fundamental rule of judicial restraint, however, that this Court will not reach constitutional questions in advance of the necessity of deciding them. See, e.g., 443 U. S. S. 158

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