US Supreme Court takes narrow view on tribal immunity
The US Supreme Court took a narrow view Tuesday on the immunity from lawsuits enjoyed by Native American tribes, which are treated in some respects like sovereign states that cannot be sued in American courts.
In a case involving a limousine driver who rear-ended a car on a Connecticut freeway, the highest court in the land ruled unanimously that tribal employees do not always have immunity when involved in incidents that take place far from reservations.
The justices revived a civil lawsuit filed by the injured occupants of the car in state court, overturning the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the case because the driver worked for the Mohegan Tribe, which runs a casino in the state.
“We hold that, in a suit brought against a tribal employee in his individual capacity, the employee, not the tribe, is the real party in interest and the tribe’s sovereign immunity is not implicated,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the court.
Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s recently appointed nominee to the court, did not participate in deliberations over the case.
The issue dates back to 2011, when William Clarke — a tribal Gaming Authority employee — was driving clients from the Mohegan Sun Casino and rear-ended a car in which Brian and Michelle Lewis were riding.
The couple sued Clarke in Connecticut state court seeking damages. But Clarke sought to have the case dismissed on the grounds of tribal sovereign immunity, arguing that the accident occurred while he was performing his duties as a tribal employee.
The couple’s battle to get Clarke to be tried in his personal capacity, without tribal immunity, lasted more than five years.
While the state court ruled in favor of the Lewises, the state Supreme Court reversed course.
The US Supreme Court disagreed.
“Clarke may not avail himself of a sovereign immunity defense,” it ruled.
Native American tribes can manage and regulate their own judicial disputes internally, but their external sovereignty is still subject to federal treaties and laws.