480 U. S. 9
February 24, 1987
When Edward LaPlante was injured on an Indian reservation in Montana, he brought suit against an Iowa insurance company for not attempting to settle his claim in good faith. LaPlante filed this suit in a tribal court. Iowa Mutual objected, and tried to get the case removed to a federal District Court in diversity. The District Court dismissed the claim, citing a lack of jurisdiction due to a federal policy of deferring to the processes and judgments of tribal courts.
Unanimously, the Court held that subject matter jurisdiction did exist in District Court, but it also held 8-1 that the District Court could not exercise that jurisdiction until the tribal court system procedure had been exhausted. Justice Marshall, writing for the majority, explained that federal policy was to maximize the autonomy and deference afforded to Indian tribunals, and that allowing removal to federal court would short circuit these interests. That the federal statute conferring diversity jurisdiction made no specific mention of a tribal court exception did not matter, since the general policy of deference remains well known.
Stevens dissented. He could not believe that tribal courts should be afforded more deference than state courts. He noted that states had a limited degree of sovereignty and autonomy under the Constitution, but that final exhaustion of state court remedies is not needed before an identical claim can be filed in federal court. Stevens felt that Indian tribes should be treated in the same manner.
This is a tricky issue because the relationship between Indian tribes and the United States is, and will always be, a hopelessly byzantine morass of complexity. On one hand, I kind of want the weird quasi-sovereignty to end, and have Indians be treated just like any other American citizens. On the other hand, their land was cruelly, viciously, and murderously stolen from them over the course of several centuries, so it’s impossible for me to say that they do not deserve a generous degree of independence. In the end, I would err on the side of too much autonomy rather than too little, and join Marshall’s opinion.