American Indian tribal courts will retain the authority to hear suits from tribal members against non-tribal businesses, after a 4-4 split in the Supreme Court. Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians leaves intact a decision from the Fifth Circuit of Appeals that upholds the jurisdiction of a Choctaw tribal court to hear a suit against the retailer Dollar General concerning an alleged sexual assault by one of its employees against a tribal member in a store on tribal grounds. The suit from the plaintiffs—the family of the alleged victim—will continue in tribal court.
The relatively narrow facts of the case obscure its serious implications. It revolves around the idea of sovereignty—the right of a people to govern itself—and it connects to a series of recent decisions about the ability of tribes and of United States territories to order their own affairs. Buried in the questions about jurisdiction over a $2.5 million civil suit are deeper questions about how the country recognizes tribal authority and how and where sovereignty arises.
The case began in 2003, when a Dollar General store on the tribal grounds enrolled a then-13-year-old tribal boy member into its youth-opportunity program. He accused a store employee, non-member Dale Townsend, of sexual advances and sexual harassment and his family brought the case to tribal court in 2005. Dollar General was named as a defendant through vicarious liability, and it filed to dismiss the suit on the grounds that the tribal court did not have the authority to try it.