Connecticut court ruling backs tribal sovereignty


HARTFORD, Conn. - The state Supreme Court has issued a ruling upholding a federally recognized tribe's sovereign immunity that shields it from being sued in state court without its consent.

The unanimous ruling upheld a lower court's decision to dismiss a lawsuit filed in 2005 by Bradley Beecher, a former commander of the state police casino and licensing unit, who began working for the Mohegan Tribe as an investigator in 1997 after retiring.

''An Indian tribe is subject to suit only when Congress has authorized the suit or the tribe has waived its immunity,'' Senior Associate Justice David Borden wrote.

Beecher and his wife, Katherine, said they would appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

''We never really thought we would win because Connecticut gets too much money from Indian gambling. The U.S. Supreme Court has been the plan all along,'' she told Indian Country Today.

The case began in October 2004 when the Mohegans brought an action against Bradley Beecher, claiming that he had tried to extort money from the tribe by threatening to disclose confidential information he had acquired while working for the tribe.

Beecher said he had in effect been fired after five years on the job because he had criticized the tribe's regulatory practices.

The tribe's lawsuit ended in December 2004 with an agreed-upon permanent injunction that allowed Beecher to talk publicly about his employment with Mohegan, but prohibited him from disclosing any confidential information about the tribe.

The Beechers have documented their battle and claims against Mohegan and state officials on an e-mail listserv and a Web site.

In May 2005, Beecher sued the Mohegan Tribe in state Superior Court, alleging that the tribe's October 2004 lawsuit was a type of vexatious litigation known as a SLAPP suit - a ''strategic lawsuit against public participation.'' Specifically, Beecher complained that the tribe was trying to gag him from making adverse comments about Mohegan to state officials while the tribe was negotiating the purchase of the Pocono Downs racetrack in Pennsylvania.

Mohegan responded with a motion to dismiss Beecher's claim, claiming that without tribal or congressional consent, the tribe's sovereign immunity protects it from actions in state court.

The lower court agreed and dismissed the case.

Beecher's appeal alleged that the lower court improperly concluded that the tribe did not waive its immunity. He claimed specifically that the tribe had waived its immunity by filing its original claim in state court.

In upholding the lower court's dismissal, Borden quoted case law that says a waiver of immunity ''may not be implied, but must be expressed unequivocally. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to find a waiver of tribal immunity based on policy concerns, perceived inequities arising from the assertion of immunity, or the unique context of a case.''

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has led the opposition to the federal recognition of the state's remaining unrecognized tribes, said the state Supreme Court ruling ''breaks no new ground and therefore has no broader ramifications. It will have little or no impact beyond this case.''

The ruling drew admiration from attorney Douglas Luckerman, who represents tribal nations in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine.

''I saw this case and wondered why the rest of New England can't have judges like that. They seem to get that tribal sovereignty is not something judges can play with easily,'' Luckerman said.

In a statement on tribal sovereignty, Katherine Beecher said, in part, that it ''allows tribes and their non-tribal management to violate the law. If tribes want to be considered separate countries then the same laws should apply to them as actual other countries. Any foreign government or their representatives must obey all American state and federal laws and can be held accountable in American courts.''

The Beechers are ''working closely with CERA, One Nation United and many other groups to see that the public is educated and that the unfair policies are changed,'' she said.