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Excerpts from Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Ruling


A. Public Law 280 Did Not Waive the Tribe's Sovereign Immunity.

This case requires this court to reconcile the plenary power of the States over residents within their borders with the semi-autonomous status of Indians living on tribal reservations. More particularly, we are asked to determine whether Public Law 280 ? which granted several states criminal jurisdiction and limited civil jurisdiction over reservation Indians ? can be read to infringe upon the sovereignty of Indian nations. An analysis of the jurisdictional reach of Public Law 280 necessarily must be taken against the backdrop of the Indian sovereignty doctrine.

The Supreme Court's jurisprudence regarding Indian sovereignty is governed by the "policy of leaving Indians free from state jurisdiction and control ... ." Rice v. Olson. The Supreme Court has viewed tribal sovereign immunity as a considerable shield against intrusions of state law into Indian country.

Public Law 280 was adopted by Congress in response to the concern over the lawlessness on Indian reservations. As such, the statute was designed to address the conduct of individuals rather than abrogate the authority of Indian governments over their reservations. Section 2 of the statute grants six states, including California, criminal jurisdiction over offenses committed by or against Indians on the reservations. Notably, the statute makes no mention of jurisdiction over Indian tribes.

The denial of state jurisdiction over tribes is also consistent with the Supreme Court's canons of construction for Indian law cases. In interpreting the scope of Public Law 280, the Supreme Court has been "guided by that eminently sound and vital canon. ? that statutes passed for the benefit of dependent Indian tribes. . . are to be liberally construed, doubtful expressions being resolved in favor of the Indians.

Thus, any statutory ambiguity as to whether the State can enforce a warrant against the Tribe should be read to protect Indian sovereignty.

Reading the plain language of the statute and applying long-established canons of construction relevant to Indian law cases, the United States Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit have interpreted Public Law 280 to extend jurisdiction to individual Indians and not to Indian tribes. Absent a waiver of sovereign immunity, tribes are immune from processes of the court.

Nevertheless, Defendants argue that in light of Supreme Court decisions that have described an inherent limitation on tribal sovereignty, Public Law 280 must be read to grant jurisdiction to the states to execute a search warrant over the Tribe. Defendants assert that because tribes are no longer possessed with the full attributes of a sovereign, it would be inconsistent with their dependent status to bar the state from executing a search warrant against tribal property.

However, all the cases relied upon by Defendants involve instances where a tribe's sovereignty has been limited after it attempted to exert jurisdiction over non-member Indians or in cases involving attempted exertion of jurisdiction over non-tribal lands. This case involves the Tribe's assertion of jurisdiction over uniquely tribal property (Casino employee records) on tribal land. Thus, Defendants' assertion that the Tribe's inherent sovereignty has been lost by implication is not supported by law.

In sum, in enacting Public Law 280, Congress neither waived the sovereignty of the tribes, nor granted state jurisdiction over Indian tribes. Accordingly, we hold that Public Law 280 did not confer state jurisdiction over the Tribe.