WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court on Wednesday restricted the ability of Indian courts to hear lawsuits involving non-tribal members.
The 5-4 decision in favor of the Plains Commerce Bank came in a dispute involving the Long Family Land and Cattle Co. Inc., an Indian-owned business on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
It was the first Supreme Court case involving Indian law for the court's newest members: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. Roberts wrote the majority opinion.
Generally, Indian tribal courts cannot hear disputes between tribal members and nonmembers. One exception enables regulating nonmembers who enter agreements with tribes or their members.
In his opinion, Roberts ruled against the Longs, saying that the exception does not allow tribes to regulate the sale of non-Indian land within a reservation.
The Long company had deeded its land to the bank in exchange for canceling some debts, a promise of loans and an opportunity to repurchase the property once all of Long's debts were paid.
Most of the Long family's cattle perished in frigid winter weather in 1996-97, prompting the bank to initiate eviction proceedings when Long was unable to settle its debt.
Long sued in the Cheyenne River Sioux tribal court, where a jury awarded the Indian-controlled company $750,000 plus interest, concluding the bank discriminated against the Longs based on their Indian status.
In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the $750,000 jury award should have been allowed to stand. Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Stephen Breyer joined Ginsburg.
The tribal court could not reinstate the Longs as owners of the ranch, but the court could hold the bank answerable for damages, Ginsburg wrote.
A U.S. District judge and the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis had said the tribal court could hear the lawsuit.
The case is Plains Commerce v. Long, 07-411.