Enforcing Judgments from Indian Country

September 09, 2019
 

Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers

In Coeur d’Alene Tribe v. Hawks, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has determined that the decisions of Indian tribal courts are enforceable in state and federal courts of the United States. 

The case concerns a federally-recognized sovereign Indian Tribe, the Coeur d’Alene, which has lands in Idaho.  It also concerns the Saint Joe River, which flows from the Northern Bitterroot Range to Lake Coeur d’Alene, draining about 1800 square miles of the Idaho panhandle. It is arguably the highest navigable river in the world.  Most of the river is managed by the United States Forest Service, but the Coeur d’Alene Tribe owns submerged portions on its tribal lands. 

Jennifer Pahre from the University of Illinois College of Law

Photo Credit:University of Illinois College of Law

The defendants in the case, Steve and Deanna Hawks, are not members of the Tribe.  They own property next to the Saint Joe River, with a boat garage resting on pilings that extend into the river.  The Tribe repeatedly told the Hawks that their boat garage, and the pilings that supported it, encroached upon tribal land.  

The Hawks did not respond.  So, the Tribe filed suit in the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Court.  The Hawks did not respond to the lawsuit, and the Tribal Court entered a judgement that included a $3,900 civil fine and a declaration that the Tribe had permission to remove the boat garage and pilings.

A civil judgement is a rather regal piece of paper saying that the winner of a lawsuit has certain rights.  These can include the right to recover money, property, or the right to do something.  But without a court’s authority supporting enforcement of the judgement, it remains a piece of paper.  Historically, tribal judgements against non-tribal members have been very difficult to enforce, due to jurisdictional and other problems.

So, to enforce the judgement it had already won in Tribal Court, the Coeur d’Alene filed another legal action against the Hawks.  They filed this one in federal court, and this time, the Hawks answered.  However, they claimed that the federal case should be dismissed, because the federal court did not have subject matter jurisdiction to hear the case, as there was no question of federal law for the court to decide.  The Tribe responded that in order to enforce tribal judgements, the court would need to rule on the scope of the Tribal Court’s jurisdiction over non-members, which is governed by federal law. 

The federal court ruled in favor of the Hawks.  But the Tribe persisted, appealing the case to the Ninth Circuit.

The federal appellate court first noted the complex rules that apply to tribes seeking jurisdiction in federal court.  It described these rules as “a complex patchwork of federal, state and tribal law, which is better explained by history than by logic...”  But then the court found that when a tribe seeks to enforce a judgement against non-members, and brings a judgment to the federal court for recognition, the federal court should recognize and support it.  This means that sovereign tribes now have the ability to enforce their judgments against non-members in non-tribal courts, just like everyone else.  This ruling, along with a similar opinion from the Supreme Court of Idaho in Coeur d’Alene Tribe v. Johnson, has given tribal nations traction on judgments involving non-tribal members.

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch has said, “Judicial decrees are to be obeyed.”  And now, at least within the Ninth Circuit, federal courts will enforce the decisions of tribal courts against non-tribal members.