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Federal court upholds tribal court's jurisdiction

ST. LOUIS - The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a discrimination verdict in favor of tribal members and validated tribal court jurisdiction.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Court and the tribal appeals court awarded a nearly $1 million judgment in favor of tribal members who claimed they were discriminated against by a commercial bank because they were tribal members.

Ronnie and Lila Long, owners of the Long Family Land and Cattle Company Inc., claimed the Plains Commerce Bank, formerly the Bank of Hoven, withdrew a promised loan to them based on the fact that they were tribal members. The Longs lost nearly 500 head of cattle in the harsh winter of 1996 - '97 because the loan was withdrawn by the bank.

The Longs filed the lawsuit in 2003 in tribal court and were awarded nearly $900,000 in damages, interest and costs. That verdict was upheld by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Court of Appeals.

The bank then moved the case to federal court with the claim that the tribal courts had no jurisdiction over discrimination cases. The U.S. District Court affirmed the tribal court's jurisdiction and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that determination.

In addition to affirming the tribal court jurisdiction, the appellate court affirmed that tribal custom and common law governed such suits in tribal courts.

''This case sends out a message in support of the sovereignty of our tribal courts, which are open and fair to all who use them.

''Today's decision tells the Longs and others like them that the tribal courts are an open and fair place in which they can challenge unfair business practices on the reservation,'' said Thomas J. Van Norman, tribal attorney for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. He represented the tribe, which filed an amicus brief.

Kenneth and Maxine Long, Ronnie's father and mother, mortgaged some 2,200 acres of fee land to the bank prior to their deaths. At the time of Kenneth's death, he owed the bank $750,000.

The bank entered into negotiations with Ronnie and Lila, and came to an agreement with BIA officers and tribal officials. The bank was to have the mortgaged land deeded over to it in consideration for canceling some of the debt and for additional loans. The Long Cattle Co. was given a two-year lease.

The Longs argued that the bank had offered them a more favorable proposal which would allow them to purchase the land back after 20 years.

The bank, in a letter, withdrew that offer because of, as the letter stated, jurisdictional problems. The bank, according to the Longs, never came through with the promised operating loans.

The Longs were not able to purchase the land back after the two-year lease period because of the loss of cattle and the bank proceeded to issue eviction notices. The bank attempted to evict the Longs from the 960 acres they continued to live on. The bank sold much of the land to other ranchers in the area, none of whom were tribal members.

The Longs filed a complaint in tribal court, asking for a restraining order and alleging the bank acted in self-interest measures when it sold the land. The court denied both claims.

''The fighting issue in the trial court was whether the bank denied the Long's favorable terms on a deal solely on the basis of their race or tribal affiliation. The bank had ample opportunity to present evidence that it did not give the Longs less favorable terms than its non-Indian customers or that it did so for some other permissible reason,'' Judge Diana Murphy wrote.

But the claim that the land was sold to non-tribal members with more favorable offers that was extended to the Longs was accepted by the court. The Longs showed evidence of unequal treatment and unfair discrimination against them.

At one point during a jury trial, the bank acknowledged the tribal court jurisdiction; but before the case went to the jury, the bank changed its position and claimed the case should be under the jurisdiction of federal law.

A unanimous decision by the tribal court jury found in favor for the Longs on four counts and allowed the Longs the option to purchase the 960 acres they occupied.

''Our tribal government works hard to ensure fairness in its court system, and this case sends a strong message upholding our tribal courts. Ironically, the bank admitted it did a lot of business on the reservation, but it did not want to abide by the tribal court's rulings,'' Van Norman said.