Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Supreme Court Declines to Hear Pechanga Disenrollment Case

The Supreme Court declined yesterday to review the decision of the California Court of Appeals in Lamere v. Superior Court declining to entertain claims brought under tribal law and the federal Indian Civil Rights Act by disenrolled members of the Temecula Band of Luiseno Mission Indians of the Pechanga Indian Reservation, commonly known as the Pechanga Band. The case involved the disenrollment by the Pechanga Band of over 130 members. The state court held that Public Law 280 granted no jurisdiction to the state courts to entertain cases about fundamental membership decisions in part due to the traditional sovereign immunity of tribes. The case was captioned Salinas v. LaMere in the United States Supreme Court.

In an earlier case out of the Table Mountain Rancheria, Lewis v, Norton, the Ninth Circuit had held that federal courts should not intervene in tribal disenrollment disputes due to tribal sovereign immunity. Since the Pechanga Band lacks a tribal court, the combined effect of the two decisions leaves the disenrolled plaintiffs without any judicial forum in which to pursue their legal claims regarding the alleged invalidity of their disenrollment from the tribe.

Should these decisions be applauded as a vindication of tribal sovereign immunity or condemned as questionable invocations of tribal sovereign immunity to thwart the rule of law, including tribal law, in favor of the whims and vagaries of the politics of tribal councils. While no one should question th wisdom of the courts' fundamental point that these issues are best finally resolved by the tribes, do tribal governments adequately serve their people or their former members when they provide no independent, neutral forum for the resolution of legal claims by former members claiming their disenrollment was illegal under tribal and federal law? On the other hand, does the lack of such an adequate judicial remedy justify intervention by others sovereigns? That clearly was the issue posed in both Lamere and Lewis. The denial of review in Lamere together with the result of Lewis legally leaves that answer to that last question a resounding no. Practically (but not technically) this position reaffirms by inaction the Supreme Court’s earlier ruling to the same effect in Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, 436 U.S. 49 (1978).


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