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Wilson v. Marchington



A member of the Blackfeet Indian Tribe brought this action in the District of Montana for recognition and registration of a judgment entered in tribal court as a result of a personal injury action against a nonmember. The district court for the District of Montana granted summary judgment in favor of the member. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit held that principles of comity, not full faith and credit, were determinative of whether the district court should recognize and enforce the tribal judgment. The Ninth Circuit also held that the tribal court did not have jurisdiction over the action that arose from a collision occurring on a United States highway within the reservation. Accordingly, the tribal judgment was not entitled to recognition in the United States district court.

On July 17, 1989, Thomas Marchington collided with Blackfeet Indian Tribe member Mary Jane Wilson while trying to pass her as she began a left turn. Wilson sued Marchington and the tribal jury awarded her $246,100. The Blackfeet Supreme Court eventually upheld the award. Wilson then brought suit in the United States District Court for the District of Montana to register the tribal court judgment. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Wilson.

The Ninth Circuit began its analysis by noting that by its terms, the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution applies only to the states,[1] and therefore does not afford full faith and credit to Indian tribal judgments. The full faith and credit statute also does not reference Indian tribes.[2] The Ninth Circuit did note that the authorities are split on whether or not Indian tribes were to be considered as “territories.” However, the court was influenced by subsequent statutes that expressly extended full faith and credit to certain tribal proceedings. In the view of the court, such measures would not be necessary if Congress had intended Indian tribes to come within the purview of the full faith and credit statute. Had Congress wanted the statute to include Indian tribes, it could easily have done so through specific reference.

Because full faith and credit was inapplicable in this case, the recognition and enforcement of tribal judgments in federal court was dependent on the principles of comity. The Ninth Circuit analyzed the traditional rules for comity and special considerations arising out of existing Indian law and formulated a general rule. According to the Ninth Circuit, federal courts should recognize and enforce tribal judgments. However, tribal judgments can neither be recognized nor enforced if either of the following applies: (1) the tribal court did not have both personal and subject matter jurisdiction; or (2) the defendant was not afforded due process of the law. Furthermore, a federal court may exercise discretion and choose not to recognize or enforce a tribal judgment based on equitable grounds including the following: (1) fraud; (2) conflicts with another final judgment entitled to recognition; or (3) public policy of the United States or the forum state in which recognition is sought. The subject matter jurisdiction factor is a threshold inquiry to virtually every federal examination of a tribal judgment. The existence of both subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction is a necessary predicate for federal court recognition and enforcement of a tribal judgment. Due process was another factor the Ninth Circuit was not willing to ignore. In addition, the Ninth Circuit held that the tribal court proceedings must afford the defendant due process or the judgment would not be recognized by the United States.

The Ninth Circuit also dismissed any requirement of reciprocal recognition as a prerequisite to United States recognition. According to the court, such requirements involve policy consideration and are more properly left to the executive and legislative branches. The Ninth Circuit also emphasized the need to apply federal common law when a federal rule or decision is necessary to protect a uniquely federal interest. Indian law was viewed as uniquely federal in nature. Accordingly, the court held that the “quintessentially federal character of Native American law, coupled with the imperative of consistency in federal recognition of tribal court judgments, by necessity require that the ultimate decision governing the recognition and enforcement of a tribal judgment by the United States be founded on federal law.”[3]

Applying the comity analysis to the case at hand, the court held that the tribal judgment was not entitled to recognition or enforcement because the tribe lacked subject matter jurisdiction. The Supreme Court has held that “tribal courts may not entertain claims against nonmembers arising out of accidents on state highways, absent a statute or treaty authorizing the tribe to govern the conduct of nonmembers on the highway in question.”[4] The Ninth Circuit found Strate v. A-1 Contractors to be controlling in the present case because of similarities between the facts in the two cases. The district court found that the accident occurred on the highway, and the Ninth Circuit found no clear error based on supporting facts in the record. Because the principles of comity require that a tribal court have competent jurisdiction before its judgment will be recognized by United States courts, and in this case the tribe lacked subject matter jurisdiction, the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court and remanded with instructions to enter judgment in favor of the nonmember, Marchington.

[1]”Full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state. And the Congress may by general laws prescribe the manner in which such acts, records and proceedings shall be proved, and the effect thereof.” U.S. Const. art. IV, § 1.

[2]”Such Acts, records and judicial proceedings or copies thereof, so authenticated, shall have the same full faith and credit in every court within the United States and its Territories and Possessions as they have by law or usage in the courts of such State, Territory or Possession from which they are taken.” 28 U.S.C. § 1738 (1994).

[3]Wilson v. Marchington, 127 F.3d 805, 813 (9th Cir. 1997).

[4]Strate v. A-1 Contractors, 520 U.S. 438, 440 (1997).

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