Supreme Court hears oral arguments for Indian tribe immunity case

Supreme Court hears oral arguments for Indian tribe immunity case

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF Wednesday in Upper Skagit Indian Tribe v. Lundgren [SCOTUSblog materials] on whether a court may exercise jurisdiction over property owned by a tribal government despite a generally applicable sovereign immunity to suit.

In this case [JURIST report], the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe and the Lundgrens owned adjacent properties in which a Washington state trial court denied the tribe’s motion to dismiss a quiet title action filed by the Lundgrens based upon an application of tribal sovereign immunity.

The Supreme Court of Washington upheld the denial [opinion, PDF], finding that the Lundgren’s acquisition of the property by adverse possession “decades before the Tribe acquired record title in 2013” would have been uncovered in a pre-purchase title search, and thus that the tribe had “wielded sovereign immunity as a sword in disguise.”

During argument, the justices appeared critical of the idea that the tribe could be immune from state jurisdiction over off-reservation land. Justice Samuel Alito questioned the implications of this immunity if a state or the federal government wanted to construct a pipeline with heavy public opposition.