Skip to main content

Navajo Supreme Court hears controversial 'long-arm' case

HANOVER, N.H. - The Navajo Supreme Court heard oral arguments Feb. 12 in a controversial and precedent-setting case that will determine the reach of tribal justice over people living on nontribal lands.

The case, known as Navajo Transport Services Inc. v. Schroeder, pits Navajo Transport

Services Inc. and Walter and Rita Belin, against defendants Charles and Sandy Schroeder, and their Eagle Claw Trading Post and Liquor Store.

The dispute is over whether the Schroeders, whose liquor store is located 25 miles from Dine' Bikeyah (Navajoland) in Colorado, can be sued in tribal court for selling a case of beer to Navajo resident Amos Yellowhair, who caused a head-on collision June 28, 2001, on Navajo land, killing himself and his infant son, and permanently disabling Walter Belin. Yellowhair was driving under the influence of alcohol, according to the police report.

The three Navajo Supreme Court justices and their staff traveled to Dartmouth College to hear oral arguments in the case as part of an educational project to raise awareness about Indian nations and their status as sovereign entities with a government-to-government relationship with states and the federal government. The event was sponsored by Dartmouth College and Vermont

Law School. The court has traveled to Harvard, Stanford, the University of Colorado and other institutions of higher education.

''There are Indian nations - they exist, they thrive and, like any sovereign, they wish to preserve their laws, their traditions, their values. And sometimes they conflict with the state or federal governments, and cases are brought up to try to find an answer. People need to be aware of the rightful place of Indian nations,'' Navajo Nation Supreme Court Chief Justice Herb Yazzie said.

The Dartmouth College session took place in the Cook Auditorium at the Tuck School of Business and drew an audience of more than 200 students and members of the public.

The case has been in court since June 26, 2003, when the Belins filed a complaint against the Schroeders and their liquor store in Navajo District Court in Kayenta, Ariz., alleging negligence, dram shop liability and loss of consortium. The claims were brought under the Navajo's ''long-arm'' and dram shop statutes, which grant the tribe personal jurisdiction over off-reservation liquor sales to people who cause injury on Navajo land.

The Schroeders responded with a motion to dismiss, claiming the Navajo court lacked personal jurisdiction over them.

The Schroeders also asked a federal district court in Colorado for an order to prohibit the Belins from bringing the case into that court. The federal court said it would not act until the Navajo court had exhausted all reviews and appeals.

The Kayenta District Court ruled in the Belins' favor in April 2004.

''The off-reservation border town liquor sales significantly impact the tribe's self-

governance of prohibiting liquor on the reservation as the selling of liquor directly impacts the tribe's health, safety and welfare, and causes many tribal social problems that exhaust tribal resources,'' the Kayenta court judge concluded.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

But two years later, the Kayenta court reversed itself and dismissed the case in response to a second motion filed by the Schroeders' attorneys. The court said the case did not meet the U.S. Supreme Court's requirements of ''minimal contact and fairness to exercise long-arm jurisdiction.'' The proximity of the liquor store to the nation's land wasn't enough to prove minimal contact, the court said.

James Ledbedder, the plaintiffs' attorney, argued that the minimum contact requirement was fulfilled by the fact that the liquor store owners, who testified in depositions that the majority of their customers were American Indians, ''knew or should have known'' that because of the liquor store owners' relationship with the Navajo, they could be held accountable in Navajo court for actions that lead to the death of Navajo people.

In dismissing the case, the Kayenta court did not cite the Navajo dram shop statute, its long-arm civil jurisdiction statute or case law, Ledbedder said. Those statutes would be rendered ''meaningless'' if they were limited to actions on the reservation, Ledbedder said.

''The nation's long-arm statute was enacted in 2000 and specifically states that jurisdiction extends to those individuals who sell liquor and, later, an accident arises on the Navajo Nation. No alcohol sales are legal on the Navajo Nation, so obviously that statute contemplates dealing with those sales that are off the nation and, specifically, to exercise sovereignty to address those businesses that cause injuries on the nation,'' Ledbedder said.

Hearing the case in tribal court also fulfils the Navajo traditional values of peacemaking and reconciliation to conflict resolution, Ledbedder said.

''The opportunity to restore harmony is a fundamental principle under the nation's fundamental laws. The opportunity for hozho should be met and fulfilled by allowing this case to go forward. This is sovereignty in all its aspects,'' Ledbedder said.

Paul McGoldrick, attorney for the defendants, argued that the nation's long-arm statute could not apply in this case.

''The owners of the Eagle Claw Trading Post live in Colorado; they're not member of the Navajo tribes. They respect your laws, but they do not believe you have jurisdiction. They do not extend personal jurisdiction to the tribe,'' McGoldrick said, asking the court to reaffirm the lower court decision to dismiss the case.

But Yazzie questioned McGoldrick's statement.

''I read in the transcript that your clients [are] essentially saying they don't know Navajo law and they don't care about Navajo law. How does that respect the Navajo Nation?'' Yazzie asked.

''I believe those comments were taken out of context,'' McGoldrick said.

McGoldrick argued that the Schroeders could not refuse under state and federal law to sell alcohol to people over 21, and that because their liquor store is 25 miles away from Navajo, they are bound only by state laws, not by Navajo laws.

Ledbedder pointed out that if the sale occurred in the state of Colorado and the injury arose in the state of Arizona, Arizona would have jurisdiction.

''It is strange to hear the suggestion that the Navajo Nation, a separate sovereign with greater power, wouldn't have the jurisdiction to hear such an argument,'' Ledbedder said.

The Navajo Nation's Supreme Court will render a decision at a later date. Either side can appeal the decision to the federal district court.