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Federal court can enforce tribal court rulings, 9th Circuit rules

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 15, 2019

Associated Press

BOISE – The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says Native American tribal courts can ask the federal courts to enforce rulings against nontribal members.

The ruling handed down last week reversed an opinion from U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill, who said federal courts didn’t have jurisdiction to enforce a ruling from the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Court against nontribal members, Boise State Public Radio reported. The appellate court disagreed.

“The doors to the federal courthouse are open to tribal courts and tribes who seek to have their judgments recognized in federal court,” Dylan Hedden-Nicely, the director of University of Idaho College of Law’s Native American Law program, said of the 9th Circuit’s ruling.

The question arose in a case between the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and a couple who live on the reservation but who aren’t tribal members.

Steve and Deanne Hawks built a boat garage on the St. Joe’s River. But the Coeur d’Alene Tribe said the St. Joe’s River is tribal property, and tribal officials told the couple they needed a permit for the structure.

According to court documents, the Hawks never responded, and in 2016 the Coeur d’Alene Tribe sued in tribal court. The tribal court fined the Hawks nearly $4,000 and said the garage could be dismantled. That’s when the Coeur d’Alene Tribe went to the U.S. District Court in Idaho to ask a federal judge to enforce the tribal court ruling. The Hawks, meanwhile, contended the federal court didn’t have jurisdiction in the matter.

The Hawks and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe have since reached an out-of-court settlement on the boat garage issue, and the 9th U.S. Circuit court’s ruling was narrowly focused on the jurisdictional question.

“The Hawks are glad to have this matter behind them and appreciate the Tribe’s cooperation in resolving it,” said Norman Semanko, an attorney representing the Hawks family.

Ernie Stensgar, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council, praised the ruling in a prepared statement.

“This a victory not just for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, but it also provides important precedent for all tribes within the 9th Circuit region that our tribal courts’ judgments against nonmembers can be recognized and enforced at the federal level,” Stensgar said.

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