- Associated Press - Monday, June 15, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) - The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal from Mississippi about the authority of tribal courts to try civil lawsuits involving non-Indians.

The justices on Monday stepped into a lawsuit over allegations of sexual abuse of a teenager at a Dollar General store on the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians reservation.

The family of the teen identified in court papers as John Doe filed a lawsuit in tribal court in 2005 seeking $2.5 million from the owners of the store and the man who allegedly molested him. The man has since been dismissed from the suit. The teen was taking part in a tribe-run internship program.

The issue for the Supreme Court is whether the non-Indian owners of the store can be sued in tribal courts.

Dollar General operates a store on trust land on the central Mississippi reservation. The tribe issued a license to the business.

The company, as a non-Indian entity, refused to submit to the tribal court’s jurisdiction.

Generally, tribes have no authority over nonmembers.

In a 1981 case from Montana, the Supreme Court provided two exceptions - one for “consensual relationships” and another for activities that threaten the health or welfare of a tribe.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled in 2014 that the “consensual relationships” exception applied to Dollar General.

“It is surely within the tribe’s regulatory authority to insist that a child working for a local business not be sexually assaulted by the employees of the business,” the 5th Circuit said.

Government attorneys said the 5th Circuit’s decision should be upheld.

“In the circumstances of this case, the tribal court has jurisdiction over the claims against petitioners because the allegedly tortious conduct occurred on tribal trust land and arose from a consensual relationship,” the government said in its brief.

Dollar General attorneys argued in briefs that the government gave “no good answer” to the tribal jurisdiction issue being raised.

“Permitting tribal court jurisdiction over tort claims against nonmembers constitutes ‘a serious step,’ given the Constitution’s premise of ‘original, and continuing, consent of the governed,’” the company’s attorneys said.


Associated Press reporter Jack Elliott Jr. in Jackson, Mississippi, contributed to this report.

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