WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court appears ready to impose limits on lawsuits in a Native American court against people who are not members of the Indian tribe.
The justices heard arguments Monday in a closely watched appeal by Dollar General Corp. over a civil lawsuit in the court of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
The Tennessee-based company was sued in tribal court in 2005 over allegations that a store manager made sexual advances toward a 13-year-old boy placed in his store by a tribal youth employment program. Dollar General asked federal courts to block the lawsuit. The boy's family is seeking $2.5 million.
Justice Anthony Kennedy and his more conservative colleagues indicated they would side with the company partly.
The Supreme Court ruled more than 40 years ago that nonmembers can only be sued in tribal court when they have agreed to dealings with the tribe, including through a contract, lease or other business arrangement.
Lower courts ruled that such a connection exists between Dollar General and the Mississippi Choctaws. The Obama administration and Mississippi, among six states, are supporting the tribe.
But Kennedy and Chief Justice John Roberts voiced concerns about the fairness of having people who are not members of the tribe being judged by tribal courts.
"The Constitution runs to the people," Kennedy said. "People have a right to insist on the Constitution, even if the federal government or Mississippi doesn't care."
Thomas Goldstein, representing Dollar General, said the situation is akin to when a resident of one state is sued in the state court of another. The case can be moved to federal court.
But Sonia Sotomayor, among the liberal justices who appeared to favor the tribe, said the situations are not analogous because the 567 federally recognized tribes are sovereign nations.
"We don't dictate to other sovereigns what kind of system they should have," Sotomayor said.
Dollar General, also backed by six states and industry groups that do business on tribal lands, warned that a rush of lawsuits in tribal court could result from a decision favoring the Mississippi Choctaws. Goldstein said the Mississippi Choctaws may have smooth-running and generally fair courts, but many tribes do not.
But Neal Katyal, representing the tribe, said prior high court decisions already limit when a nonmember can be sued. Even when those suits are filed, the non-Indian party wins most of the time, the tribe said in its court filing. Looking at nearly 5,000 lawsuits starting in January 2013, the non-Indian party won 85 percent of the time, the tribe said.
A broad win for Dollar General could severely hamper the authority of tribal courts to resolve cases in which a member makes claims about a company that does business on tribal land, Katyal said.
A decision in Dollar General Corp. v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, 13-1496, is expected by late spring.