Strate v. A-1 Contractors,
520 U.S. 438 (1997)

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No. 95-1872. Argued January 7, 1997-Decided April 28, 1997

Vehicles driven by petitioner Fredericks and respondent Stockert collided on a portion of a North Dakota state highway that runs through the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The 6.59-mile stretch of highway within the reservation is open to the public, affords access to a federal water resource project, and is maintained by North Dakota under a federally granted right-of-way that lies on land held by the United States in trust for the Three Affiliated Tribes and their members. Neither driver is a member of the Tribes or an Indian, but Fredericks is the widow of a deceased tribal member and has five adult children who are also members. The truck driven by Stockert belonged to his employer, respondent A-I Contractors, a non-Indian-owned enterprise with its principal place of business outside the reservation. At the time, A-I was under a subcontract with LCM Corporation, a corporation wholly owned by the Tribes, to do landscaping within the reservation. The record does not show whether Stockert was engaged in subcontract work at the time of the accident. Fredericks filed a personal injury action in Tribal Court against Stockert and A-I, and Fredericks' adult children filed a loss-of-consortium claim in the same lawsuit. The Tribal Court ruled that it had jurisdiction over Fredericks' claim and therefore denied respondents' motion to dismiss, and the Northern Plains Intertribal Court of Appeals affirmed. Respondents then commenced this action in the Federal District Court against Fredericks, her adult children, the Tribal Court, and Tribal Judge Strate, seeking a declaratory judgment that, as a matter of federal law, the Tribal Court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate Fredericks' claims; respondents also sought an injunction against further Tribal Court proceedings. Relying particularly on National Farmers Union Ins. Coso v. Crow Tribe, 471 U. S. 845, and Iowa Mut. Ins. Co. v. LaPlante, 480 U. S. 9, the District Court dismissed the action, determining that the Tribal Court had civil jurisdiction over Fredericks' complaint against respondents. The


en banc Eighth Circuit reversed, concluding that the controlling precedent was Montana v. United States, 450 U. S. 544, and that, under Montana, the Tribal Court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the dispute.

Held: When an accident occurs on a public highway maintained by the State pursuant to a federally granted right-of-way over Indian reservation land, a civil action against allegedly negligent nonmembers falls within state or federal regulatory and adjudicatory governance; absent a statute or treaty authorizing the tribe to govern the conduct of nonmembers driving on the State's highway, tribal courts may not exercise jurisdiction in such cases. This Court expresses no view on the governing law or proper forum when an accident occurs on a tribal road within a reservation. Pp. 445-460.

(a) Absent express authorization by federal statute or treaty, tribal jurisdiction over nonmembers' conduct exists only in limited circumstances. In Oliphant v. Suquamish Tribe, 435 U. S. 191, the Court held that tribes lack criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians. Later, in Montana v. United States, the Court set forth the general rule that, absent a different congressional direction, Indian tribes lack civil authority over the conduct of nonmembers on non-Indian land within a reservation, subject to exceptions relating to (1) the activities of nonmembers who enter consensual relationships with the tribe or its members and (2) nonmember conduct that threatens or directly affects the tribe's political integrity, economic security, health, or welfare. 450 U. S., at 564-567. Pp. 445-448.

(b) Montana controls this case. Contrary to petitioners' contention, National Farmers and Iowa Mutual do not establish a rule converse to Montana's. Neither case establishes that tribes presumptively retain adjudicatory authority over claims against nonmembers arising from occurrences anywhere within a reservation. Rather, these cases prescribe a prudential, nonjurisdictional exhaustion rule requiring a federal court in which tribal-court jurisdiction is challenged to stay its hand, as a matter of comity, until after the tribal court has had an initial and full opportunity to determine its own jurisdiction. See 471 U. S., at 857; 480 U. S., at 20, n. 14; see also id., at 16, n. 8. This exhaustion rule, as explained in National Farmers, 471 U. S., at 855-856, reflects the more extensive jurisdiction tribal courts have in civil cases than in criminal proceedings and the corresponding need to inspect relevant statutes, treaties, and other materials in order to determine tribal adjudicatory authority. National Farmers' exhaustion requirement does not conflict with Montana, in which the Court made plain that the general rule and exceptions there announced govern only in the absence of a delegation

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