WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday seemed poised to limit the power of Indian tribal courts to hear civil cases against outsiders.
Monday’s case, Dollar General Corp. v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, No. 14-1175, started when a 13-year-old Indian boy accused the manager of a Dollar General Store of sexually molesting him.
The manager was not a member of the tribe. The store was on Indian land, and the company that owned the store had agreed to have at least claims concerning its lease heard in tribal court.
The boy and his parents sued the manager and the company in tribal court. A federal appeals court allowed the suit against the company to proceed, reasoning that the company’s connection to the tribe was sufficient to allow the tribal court to have jurisdiction.
Several of the Supreme Court’s more liberal members seemed inclined to agree, but they were in the minority.
“What’s wrong with the tribal courts?” Justice Stephen G. Breyer asked. “We’ve seen lots of tribal courts, which I can’t distinguish them in the fairness and procedure and so forth from every other court in the country.”
Thomas C. Goldstein, a lawyer for the company, said the quality and independence of tribal courts varied but that all of them fell short as a constitutional matter.
“The Constitution is the supreme law of the land in the United States,” he said. “This court is the Supreme Court of the United States.” But those “bedrock principles,” he added, do not apply to tribal courts.
The Supreme Court has said that that the Bill of Rights does not apply to Indian tribal governments, though in 1968 Congress imposed some comparable protections in a statute.
Mr. Goldstein said the parties to a contract could explicitly agree to have their cases heard in tribal courts, just as they could agree to arbitration. He added that Congress could, within limits, expand the jurisdiction of tribal courts.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy seemed to disagree on the second point. “I don’t know what authority Congress has to subject citizens of the United States to that nonconstitutional forum,” he said, referring to tribal courts.