Strate v. A-1 Contractors (95-1872), 520 U.S. 438 (1997).
[ Ginsburg ]
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NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eighth circuit

No. 95-1872. Argued January 7, 1997 -- Decided April 28, 1997

Vehicles driven by petitioner Fredericks and respondent Stockert collided on a portion of a North Dakota state highway that runs through the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The 6.59 mile stretch of highway within the reservation is open to the public, affords access to a federal water resource project, and is maintained by North Dakota under a federally granted right of way that lies on land held by the United States in trust for the Three Affiliated Tribes and their members. Neither driver is a member of the Tribes or an Indian, but Fredericks is the widow of a deceased tribal member and has five adult children who are also members. The truck driven by Stockert belonged to his employer, respondent A-1 Contractors, a non Indian owned enterprise with its principal place of business outside the reservation. At the time, A-1 was under a subcontract with LCM Corporation, a corporation wholly owned by the Tribes, to do landscaping within the reservation. The record does not show whether Stockert was engaged in subcontract work at the time of the accident. Fredericks filed a personal injury action in Tribal Court against Stockert and A-1, and Fredericks' adult children filed a loss of consortium claim in the same lawsuit. The Tribal Court ruled that it had jurisdiction over Fredericks' claim and therefore denied respondents' motion to dismiss, and the Northern Plains Intertribal Court of Appeals affirmed. Respondents then commenced this action in the Federal District Court against Fredericks, her adult children, the Tribal Court, and Tribal Judge Strate, seeking a declaratory judgment that, as a matter of federal law, the Tribal Court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate Fredericks' claims; respondents also sought an injunction against further Tribal Court proceedings. Relying particularly on National Farmers Union Ins. Cos. v. Crow Tribe, 471 U.S. 845, and Iowa Mut. Ins. Co. v. LaPlante, 480 U.S. 9, the District Court dismissed the action, determining that the Tribal Court had civil jurisdiction over Fredericks' complaint against respondents. The en banc Eighth Circuit reversed, concluding that the controlling precedent was Montana v. United States, 450 U.S. 544, and that, under Montana, the Tribal Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the dispute.

Held: When an accident occurs on a public highway maintained by the State pursuant to a federally granted right of way over Indian reservation land, a civil action against allegedly negligent nonmembers falls within state or federal regulatory and adjudicatory governance; absent a statute or treaty authorizing the tribe to govern the conduct of nonmembers driving on the State's highway, tribal courts may not exercise jurisdiction in such cases. This Court expresses no view on the governing law or proper forum when an accident occurs on a tribal road within a reservation. Pp. 4-20.

(a) Absent express authorization by federal statute or treaty, tribal jurisdiction over nonmembers' conduct exists only in limited circumstances. In Oliphant v. Suquamish Tribe, 435 U.S. 191, the Court held that tribes lack criminal jurisdiction over non Indians. Later, in Montana v. United States, the Court set forth the general rule that, absent a different congressional direction, Indian tribes lack civil authority over the conduct of nonmembers on non Indian land within a reservation, subject to exceptions relating to (1) the activities of nonmembers who enter consensual relationships with the tribe or its members and (2) nonmember conduct that threatens or directly affects the tribe's political integrity, economic security, health, or welfare. 450 U. S., at 564-567. Pp. 4-7.

(b) Montana controls this case. Contrary to petitioners' contention, National Farmers and Iowa Mutual do not establish a rule converse to Montana's. Neither case establishes that tribes presumptively retain adjudicatory authority over claims against nonmembers arising from occurrences anywhere within a reservation. Rather, these cases prescribe a prudential, nonjurisdictional exhaustion rule requiring a federal court in which tribal court jurisdiction is challenged to stay its hand, as a matter of comity, until after the tribal court has had an initial and full opportunity to determine its own jurisdiction. See 471 U. S., at 857; 480 U. S., at 20, n. 14; see also id., at 16, n. 8. This exhaustion rule, as explained in National Farmers, 471 U. S., at 855-856, reflects the more extensive jurisdiction tribal courts have in civil cases than in criminal proceedings and the corresponding need to inspect relevant statutes, treaties, and other materials in order to determine tribal adjudicatory authority. National Farmers' exhaustion requirement does not conflict with Montana, in which the Court made plain that the general rule and exceptions there announced govern only in the absence of a delegation of tribal authority by treaty or statute. See 450 U. S., at 557-563. Read in context, the Court's statement in Iowa Mutual, 480 U. S., at 18, that "[c]ivil jurisdiction over [the] activities [of non Indians on reservation lands] presumptively lies in the tribal courts," addresses only situations in which tribes possess authority to regulate nonmembers' activities. As to nonmembers, a tribe's adjudicative jurisdiction does not exceed its legislative jurisdiction, absent congressional direction enlarging tribal court jurisdiction. Pp. 7-13.

(c) It is unavailing to argue, as petitioners do, that Montana does not govern this case because the land underlying the accident scene is held in trust for the Three Affiliated Tribes and their members. Petitioners are correct that Montana and the cases following its instruction--Brendale v. Confederated Tribes and Bands of Yakima Nation, 492 U.S. 408, and South Dakota v. Bourland, 508 U.S. 679--all involved alienated, non Indian owned reservation land. However, the right of way North Dakota acquired for its highway renders the 6.59 mile stretch here at issue equivalent, for nonmember governance purposes, to such alienated, non Indian land. The right of way was granted to facilitate public access to a federal water resource project, forms part of the State's highway, and is open to the public. Traffic on the highway is subject to the State's control. The granting instrument details only one specific reservation to Indian landowners, the right to construct necessary crossings, and the Tribes expressly reserved no other right to exercise dominion or control over the right of way. Rather, they have consented to, and received payment for, the State's use of the stretch at issue, and so long as that stretch is maintained as part of the State's highway, they cannot assert a landowner's right to occupy and exclude. Pp. 13-16.

(d) Petitioners refer to no treaty or federal statute authorizing the Three Affiliated Tribes to entertain highway accident tort suits of the kind Fredericks commenced against A-1 and Stockert. Nor have they shown that Fredericks' tribal court action qualifies under either of the exceptions to Montana's general rule. The tortious conduct alleged by Fredericks does not fit within the first exception for "activities of nonmembers who enter consensual relationships with the tribe or its members, through commercial dealing, contracts, leases, or other arrangements," 450 U. S., at 565, particularly when measured against the conduct at issue in the cases cited by Montana, id., at 565-566, as fitting within the exception, Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217, 223; Morris v. Hitchcock, 194 U.S. 384; Buster v. Wright, 135 F. 947, 950; and Washington v. Confederated Tribes of Colville Reservation, 447 U.S. 134, 152-154. This dispute is distinctly nontribal in nature, arising between two non Indians involved in a run of the mill highway accident. Although A-1 was engaged in subcontract work on the reservation, and therefore had a "consensual relationship" with the Tribes, Fredericks was not a party to the subcontract, and the Tribes were strangers to the accident. Montana's second exception, concerning conduct that "threatens or has some direct effect on the political integrity, the economic security, or the health or welfare of the tribe," 450 U. S., at 566, is also inapplicable. The cases cited by Montana as stating this exception each raised the question whether a State's (or Territory's) exercise of authority would trench unduly on tribal self government. Fisher v. District Court of Sixteenth Judicial Dist. of Mont., 424 U.S. 382, 386; Williams, 358 U. S., at 220; Montana Catholic Missions v. Missoula County, 200 U.S. 118, 128-129; and Thomas v. Gay, 169 U.S. 264, 273. Opening the Tribal Court for Fredericks' optional use is not necessary to protect tribal self government; and requiring A-1 and Stockert to defend against this commonplace state highway accident claim in an unfamiliar court is not crucial to the Tribes' political integrity, economic security, or health or welfare. Pp. 16-20.

76 F. 3d 930, affirmed.

Ginsburg, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.