WASHINGTON, D.C. - The U.S. Supreme Court gave the green light for states to assume more jurisdiction on reservation land.
The case involves the state of Nevada against a member of the Fallon-Paiute-Shoshone tribe who was accused of violating state laws regarding hunting off the reservation, but had evidence confiscated by state officials at his residence on the Fallon reservation.
The question was whether the tribal court had jurisdiction over civil claims against the state officials. State officers searched Floyd Hicks' home on the reservation for mounted California big horn sheep he was accused of hunting off the reservation and on state land. After it was found he did not violate any state law, the mounted heads were returned, damaged, Hicks said. He then filed a civil lawsuit in tribal court against the state officials who claimed immunity because they were state officers.
The high court overturned a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, and favored the state of Nevada, which claimed immunity from suit by a tribal court.
"Our cases make clear that the Indians' right to make their own laws and be governed by them does not exclude all state regulatory authority on the reservation.
"State sovereignty does not end at the reservation. Though tribes are often referred to as sovereign entities, it was long ago that the Court departed from Chief Justice Marshall's view that the laws of a state can have no force within reservation boundaries," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the majority opinion.
In citing case law, Scalia wrote that, "Ordinarily, it is now clear, an Indian reservation is considered part of the territory of the state." He also said it doesn't mean the state has the same regulatory authority on the reservation as it does outside the boundaries.
The fact that states have authority over tribal members when crimes are committed or civil authority is violated off the reservation does not mean the state has additional authority over civil laws within the reservation.
Scalia also stated that the high court had already ruled that tribal members are subject to state regulation even though on reservation land. He cited a Supreme Court decision referred to as Confederate Tribes, that disallowed tribal members from selling tax-free cigarettes to nonmembers while on reservation land.
"Nothing in the federal statutory scheme prescribes, or even remotely suggests, that state officers cannot enter a reservation to investigate or prosecute violations of state law occurring off the reservation," Scalia wrote.
As seen by the states, Nevada Senior Deputy Attorney General Wayne Howle said the decision "paves the way for cooperation between state and tribal law enforcement over state crimes that must be investigated on Indian reservations.
"A contrary ruling at the U.S. Supreme Court would have made state officials reluctant to ever step foot on an Indian reservation, even if their duty to enforce state laws required such entry," he said.
The wildlife officials argued they were protected from a lawsuit in tribal court because of Nevada's sovereign immunity status and because of a qualified immunity that protects government officials over their official actions so long as they did not violate someone's clearly established rights.
Indian country sees the decision differently. Tribal leaders' legal experts expressed frustration at another U.S. Supreme Court decision that goes against tribal sovereignty and self-determination. The gist of what some attorneys and tribal leaders claim is that the decision may put states rights ahead of tribal sovereignty.
Todd Plimpton, attorney for the Fallon tribes, said the decision was so new it was difficult to way the impact it may have on the Fallon Tribes or other nations. "There will be some adverse impact, but it will be two to three years from now before it is felt.
"I can't tell what fallout there will be at this time. Plenty of work will be done on this case in the next few years," he said
Each tribe could be impacted differently. Some tribes already have a relationship with a state that allows state authority on the reservation and some with reciprocity of civil authority. Tribes in states with the 280 compact will be impacted less, than others, authorities say.
"We conclude today that tribal authority to regulate state officers in executing process related to the violation, off reservation, of state laws is not essential to tribal self-government or internal relations - to the right to make laws and be ruled by them.
"The state's interest in execution of process is considerable, and even when it relates to Indian-fee lands it no more impairs the tribe's self-government than federal enforcement of federal law impairs state government," Justice Scalia wrote.