SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The jurisdiction of a Native American tribal court was challenged Friday by the developer of a popular glass bridge over the Grand Canyon who has been locked in a multi-million dollar contract dispute with an Arizona-based tribe.
David Jin's lawyer, Troy Eid, told a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the Las Vegas businessman should not have to fight his legal battles in the Hualapai (WAHL'-uh-peye) tribal court system, saying it lacks authority to hear the case.
Eid also said the tribal court is not giving his client a fair shot to protect his financial stake.
Jeffrey Gross, an attorney for the tribe, denied the allegations and told the panel that Jin signed a contract allowing the operation of the Skywalk to be governed by Hualapai law. Gross argued that Jin first must exhaust his legal options in tribal court before turning to federal courts.
The fight between Jin and the tribe could be worth tens of millions of dollars and stems from a disagreement over management fees and an incomplete visitor center.
The dispute prompted Hualapai leaders to sever Jin's contract. They say he is owed $11 million for fair market value of the Skywalk. Jin, however, says his rights are worth closer to $100 million. He has alleged in lawsuits that his constitutional rights are being violated.
The Grand Canyon Skywalk extends in a horseshoe shape from the canyon's edge on tribal land in western Arizona, giving visitors a view of the Colorado River 4,000 feet below. Jin invested $30 million to build it.
It's unclear when the panel will rule in the dispute over jurisdiction.
The judges said they understood the claims and are aware of the financial stakes. They also said they realize both parties are anxious for a resolution.
The judges also asked Gross half-heartedly if they would see the parties back again for another possible round of appeals.
"Or not," Gross said. "Because we don't know what's going to happen in tribal court and that's the whole point of exhausting the administrative remedies in tribal court because that process may prevent us from coming back."
There is an exception to exhausting tribal court remedies if Jin's attorneys can prove that the tribal court — not the Tribal Council — has acted in bad faith. He's been unsuccessful so far.
The federal district court repeatedly has said that the tribal court has the first right to hear the case.
The two sides don't agree either on an arbiter's decision to award Jin more than $28 million in the contract dispute. The tribe pulled out of the proceeding by the American Arbitration Association once it cut Jin out of the contract.
Staff Writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Ariz., contributed to this report.