BISHOP, Calif. - The Supreme Court May 19 decided that the Paiute-Shoshone Indian Community of Bishop, Calif., may not sue Inyo County under a 19th century civil rights law that protects persons who have been deprived of their federal rights by officials acting under state law.
The tribe had sued Inyo County's district attorney and sheriff for $26 million after the county had executed a search warrant and seized the records of three casino employees suspected of welfare fraud. The county later came back again asking for payroll records of six other employees.
The justices agreed that the tribe could not sue under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the opinion for all but Justice John Paul Stevens, saying that the tribe does not qualify as a "person" under the statute.
Justice Stevens wrote a concurring opinion in which he countered that a American Indian tribe is a "person" capable of suing under the civil rights law, but the Paiute Shoshone tribe was not entitled to sue in order to give it special immunity from a search warrant that would have been lawful if the casino were an ordinary commercial corporation. Section 1983 was not enacted for such purposes.
The ruling means the tribe cannot collect money damages from the state. The court did not decide whether the county has a right to execute a search warrant on tribal property to obtain evidence of a crime committed off the reservation. Instead, the case was sent back to the lower courts to consider whether the tribe can seek declaratory relief under the jurisdiction of federal common law. Declaratory relief in this case would be an order from the court saying that Inyo County doesn't have the authority to execute searches against the tribe or its property, because a tribe is a sovereign immune from state law.
John Kirby, who presented Inyo County's argument, says it's a large victory for the county.
"From the standpoint of monetary damage potential, this is a very significant win. Further, with regard to the issue of whether or not there is sovereign immunity ? the tribe as the Plaintiff clearly has the laboring oar to show that there is some federal common law that allows the court to even have jurisdiction over the question."
Reid Chambers, who argued for the tribe, says the fact that the Supreme Court did not rule on either of the two questions, whether the county could execute the search warrant and whether the court did have jurisdiction to issue declaratory relief, is positive.
"I think it's more good news than bad news," Chambers says. "Usually when the Supreme Court decides to review a lower court decision, most of the time they just reverse the lower court."
Chambers is confident that the tribe can show the lower courts that it is entitled under existing law to declaratory or injunctive relief if a state or county official violates the tribe's federal rights.
But not everyone is happy about this Supreme Court ruling.
Brian Pierson, who practices Indian law in Wisconsin, thinks it is an ominous sign that the Court sent the case back to the lower courts to decide federal jurisdiction.
"I hope I'm not just finding clouds in silver linings here. Let's put it this way. It's not as bad as it could have been. It could have been another body blow to tribal sovereignty and it wasn't. What I don't like about it is, what are the implications of the Supreme Court saying, we are not sure whether or not federal Indian law is a sufficient basis for federal declaratory judgment action. Because I would consider that a major tool for resisting encroachments of tribal sovereignty by states."