In a recent appellate case, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals followed well-established precedent when it affirmed a federal district court decision that recognized the Choctaw tribal court’s jurisdiction over a tribal member’s suit against a non-member of the tribe.[1] The non-member (a non-Indian corporation) had filed suit in federal district court seeking to enjoin or stop the Choctaw tribal court from exercising jurisdiction over the tribal member’s tort case. But the district court concluded that the tribal court could hear the case because the non-member had entered into business dealings with a tribal member on tribal land.

Tribal Sovereignty and Tribal Court Jurisdiction

So, why must the tribal court be given the opportunity to exercise jurisdiction over the tort case against the non-member? The answer begins with tribal sovereignty. Long ago, in the famous Marshall trilogy of cases, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the indigenous Indian nations as sovereign body politics with inherent powers to govern themselves although that power is subject to federal power.[2] In other words, the recognized Indian tribes are sovereign nations, but Congress has the authority to limit or even eliminate that sovereignty. This principle of tribal sovereignty is fundamental to American Indian law. Although the concept has evolved and been eroded somewhat over time, tribal sovereignty is strongly defended by Indian tribes.

Based on the recognition of tribal sovereignty, two contrasting legal rules on tribal court jurisdiction have been established by the Supreme Court. The first rule states when tribal courts have exclusive jurisdiction (no federal or state court has jurisdiction). The second rule states when tribal courts have no jurisdiction. (Please note, however, that this discussion is limited to jurisdiction in civil case; tribal jurisdiction in criminal cases has been limited by Congress).

Contrasting Rules on Tribal Court Jurisdiction

In civil cases, the courts follow a general rule holding that tribal courts have exclusive jurisdiction if the claim (1) is asserted against an Indian, and (2) arose from an event or transaction that occurred in Indian country.[3] Thus, if two tribal members are involved in an auto collision while driving on tribal land, and one member sues the other, the tribal court will have jurisdiction because the defendant is an Indian and the collision occurred on tribal land.

In contrast to the general rule, the Supreme Court has also held that tribal courts do not have jurisdiction if (1) the defendant is a non-Indian, and (2) the event or transaction occurred on non-Indian-owned, fee-title land within a reservation.[4] Thus, if a tribal member and a non-Indian are involved in an auto collision while driving on privately owned land within the boundary of a reservation, the tribal court would not have jurisdiction. This second rule, known as the Montana rule, has two important exceptions that would result in tribal court jurisdiction (discussed in more detail below).

These two rules are fairly clear, but cases that fall in between these two rules are less clear, and that’s where the parties have room to argue. As a result, the federal courts were regularly asked to assert jurisdiction when the defendant was a non-Indian and the event occurred in Indian country.

Deference to Tribal Courts If Jurisdiction is in Question

The tribal court exhaustion doctrine was developed as a response to this jurisdictional gray area. The Supreme Court established this doctrine in 1985 when it held that federal courts cannot exercise jurisdiction—must allow a tribal court to rule on its own jurisdiction in the case—if (2) the defendant is a non-Indian, and (2) the claim arose on tribal land.[5] Nonetheless, the doctrine also states that non-Indian defendants may file suit in federal court after all proceedings in tribal court have been exhausted.[6]

Under this doctrine, tribal sovereignty is protected because the doctrine allows the tribal court to make its own determination regarding its jurisdiction in the case. But the rights of non-Indian defendants are also protected because the defendant can file a case in federal court after the tribal court hears the case. Thus, the tribal court exhaustion doctrine is a matter of deference to the tribal court.

The Montana Rule Exceptions and the Tribal Court Exhaustion Doctrine

The Montana rule has two important exceptions that provide tribal courts with an opportunity to exercise jurisdiction. As stated above, the Montana rule provides that tribal courts do not have jurisdiction if (1) the defendant is a non-Indian, and (2) the event or transaction occurred on land located within a reservation, but privately owned in fee title.[7]

The exceptions to the Montana rule provide that a tribal court will have jurisdiction if (1) the non-Indian entered contractual or other relationships with the tribe or tribal members; or (2) the claim asserted effects the political, economic, or welfare interests of the tribe.[8] Again, these exceptions protect tribal sovereignty, and the policy of tribal self-determination, by respecting the authority of the tribal court to determine its own jurisdiction.

Other Exceptions to the Tribal Court Exhaustion Doctrine

Two other exceptions to the tribal court exhaustion doctrine exist. Unlike the Montana exceptions, however, these exceptions give jurisdiction to the federal courts, rather than to tribal courts.

The first of these exceptions is federal preemption. When Congress enacts a law that regulates a field on a national basis, such as the Clean Water Act, the law preempts (or “trumps”) any state or local law that is inconsistent with the federal law. This preemption also applies to the tribes, and the federal courts can take jurisdiction without deferring to a tribal court.[9]

Finally, the exhaustion doctrine will not apply if the tribal court does not allow the non-Indian defendant an opportunity to challenge the tribal court’s jurisdiction.[10] Thus, a tribal court cannot simply declare its jurisdiction without considering the issue.


To some, the tribal court exhaustion doctrine may mean litigating in an unfamiliar court, but the doctrine is designed to respect and protect well-established principles of tribal sovereignty and is supported by the federal policy of tribal self-determination. From a legal perspective, the exhaustion doctrine and its deference to tribal courts has become a necessary aspect of managing the jurisdictional relationship between the courts of three sovereigns—tribal, federal, and state.

We hope that this discussion has been informative and helpful, but it should not be taken as legal advice or establishing an attorney-client relationship. For more information on the legal services offered by the Law Office of James D. Griffith, P.L.L.C., please call (480) 275-8738 or use the “Contact Us” page on our website.


[1] Dolgencorp, Inc. v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, No. 12-60668, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 20307 (5th Cir. Oct. 3, 2013).

[2] Johnson v. McIntosh, 21 U.S. 543, 573 (1823); Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 30 U.S. 1, 16-17 (1831); Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515, 559 (1832).

[3] Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217 (1959). The term “Indian country” refers to Indian reservations, pueblos, dependent Indian communities, Indian allotments, and certain other areas that may be off-reservation but are close to and often largely populated by Indians. 18 U.S.C. § 1151.

[4] Montana v. United States, 450 U.S. 544 (1981). In these cases, the land involved is not held in trust by the federal government for the Indian tribe, but instead is owned privately and is subject to state law.

[5] Nat’l Farmers Union Ins. Cos. v. Crow Tribe, 471 U.S. 845, 855-6 (1985).

[6] Id. 471 at 856-7; see also Iowa Mut. Ins. Co. v. LaPlante, 480 U.S. 9, 19 (1987) (holding that a tribal court finding of tribal jurisdiction can be challenged in federal court and that the federal court will review the jurisdictional issue de novo).

[7] Montana, 450 U.S. at 564-66.

[8] Id.

[9] Nat’l Farmers Union, 471 U.S. at n.21.

[10] Id.; see also El Paso Natural Gas Co. v. Neztsosie, 526 U.S. 473, 484-488 (1999).

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