Denying Sovereignty: The Louisiana Supreme Court?s Rejection of the Tribal Exhaustion Doctrine

AuthorCarey Austin Holliday
Denying Sovereignty: The Louisiana Supreme Court’s
Rejection of the Tribal Exhaustion Doctrine
In its recent decision in Meyer & Associates, Inc. v. Coushatta
Tribe of Louisiana, the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to require
the application of the Tribal Exhaustion Doctrine (the Doctrine) in
Louisiana state district courts.1 The Doctrine is a federal
jurisprudential rule that applies when a tribal court has a claim of
jurisdiction over a dispute.2 It requires federal courts to abstain from
hearing the case until the tribal court has determined whether it can
properly retain jurisdiction over the matter.3 The effect of this ruling
by the Louisiana Supreme Court is that tribal courts will be denied
the ability, in many instances, to determine questions related to
tribal sovereign immunity. The United States Supreme Court has not
yet had the occasion to determine whether the Doctrine is required
of state courts, and several states have reached different conclusions
as to whether their courts will be required to apply the Doctrine.4
Upon further examination of federal common law, as well as strong
prudential considerations in favor of the Doctrines application, it
becomes apparent that the Louisiana Supreme Court erred in
declining to apply the Doctrine to Louisiana state district courts.
This Note will analyze the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision
not to follow the Tribal Exhaustion Doctrine in Meyer. The first part
of this Note will recount the history of the Tribal Exhaustion
Doctrine and its status in both federal and state courts. The second
part will discuss the decision in Meyer and will summarize the
analysis of both the majority and dissenting opinions. The third part
will discuss the Louisiana Supreme Court’s duty, under the
Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, to apply the Doctrine to
Louisiana courts.5 The fourth part will argue that, in addition to the
Louisiana Supreme Court’s obligation under the Supremacy Clause,
a careful consideration of prudential factors, as well as state and
federal policies in favor of tribal sovereignty and self-determination,
should have led the court to require that lower Louisiana state courts
apply the Tribal Exhaustion Doctrine to disputes like Meyer.
Copyright 2011, by CAREY AUSTIN HOLLIDAY.
1. Meyer & Assocs., Inc. v. Coushatta Tribe of La., 992 So. 2d 446, 452
(La. 2008), cert. denied, 129 S.Ct. 1908 (2009).
2. Nat’l Farmers Union Ins. Cos. v. Crow Tribe of Indians, 471 U.S. 845,
856 (1985).
3. Iowa Mut. Ins. Co. v. LaPlante, 480 U.S. 9, 15 (1987).
4. See discussion infra Part I.B.
5. U.S. CONST. art. VI.
A. The Doctrine in General
Native American tribes are characterized by the United States
Supreme Court as being “domestic dependent nations.”6 They are
“distinct political communities, having territorial boundaries,
within which their authority is exclusive.”7 In recognition of its
responsibility to these domestic dependent nations, Congress has
made efforts to ensure that tribal sovereignty is both maintained
and respected.8 Tribal courts play an important role in sustaining
tribal sovereignty, and the federal government took steps to ensure
their development.9 Native American tribes retain the ability to
govern their lands and tribe members, provided that there is no
federal statute or treaty restricting the exercise of that authority.10
Necessarily, then, Native American tribes and their courts “occupy
a unique status under our law.”11 Because of this unique position,
tribes often find themselves caught in a power struggle between
tribal, federal, and state governments.12
In response to problems that the tribes’ unique legal status
poses, federal courts inventively created a set of jurisdictional rules
to apply in disputes involving both members and non-members of
a tribe. One such rule is the “Tribal Exhaustion” or the
“Exhaustion of Tribal Remedies” Doctrine, which was first
announced by the U.S. Supreme Court in National Farmers Union
v. Crow Tribe of Indians.13 The Doctrine requires that, in situations
where a tribal court has a claim of jurisdiction that has been
challenged, the tribal court will be the first institution with the
opportunity to evaluate the basis upon which the challenge has
been made.14 Thus, the Doctrine requires that federal courts stay
6. Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 30 U.S. (5 Pet.) 1 (1831).
7. Worchester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 515, 557 (1832).
8. See Iowa, 480 U.S. at 14.
9. Id.
10. Id.
11. Nat’l Farmers Union Ins. Cos. v. Crow Tribe of Indians, 471 U.S. 845,
851 (1985).
12. Robert D. Cooter & Wolfgang Fikentscher, Indian Common Law: The
Role of Custom in American Indian Tribal Courts (Part I of II), 46 AM. J. COMP.
L. 287, 293 (1998).
14. See id. at 856; see also Ninigret Dev. Corp. v. Narragansett Indian
Wetuomuck H ous. Auth., 207 F.3d 21, 31 (1st Cir. 2000) (“[W]hen a colorable
claim of tribal court jurisdiction has been asserted, a federal court may (and
ordinarily should) give the tribal court precedence and afford it a full and fair
opportunity to determine the extent of its own jurisdiction . . . .”).

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