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Law School Case Brief

Plains Commerce Bank v. Long Family Land & Cattle Co. - 554 U.S. 316, 128 S. Ct. 2709 (2008)


As a general rule, an Indian tribe has no authority itself, by way of tribal ordinance or actions in the tribal courts, to regulate the use of fee land. Two exceptions to this principle have been recognized, circumstances in which tribes may exercise civil jurisdiction over non-Indians on their reservations, even on non-Indian fee lands. First, a tribe may regulate, through taxation, licensing, or other means, the activities of nonmembers who enter consensual relationships with the tribe or its members, through commercial dealing, contracts, leases, or other arrangements. Second, a tribe may exercise civil authority over the conduct of non-Indians on fee lands within the reservation when that conduct threatens or has some direct effect on the political integrity, the economic security, or the health or welfare of the tribe. These rules have become known as the Montana exceptions, after the case that elaborated them. By their terms, the exceptions concern regulation of the activities of nonmembers or the conduct of non-Indians on fee land.


Petitioner Plains Commerce Bank (Bank), a non-Indian bank, sold land that the Bank owned in fee simple which was located in South Dakota on a tribal reservation, to non-Indians. Respondents Ronnie and Lila Long and their ranching company, an Indian couple who had been leasing the land with an option to purchase, claimed the Bank discriminated against them by selling the parcel to nonmembers of the Tribe on terms more favorable than the Bank offered to sell it to them. The Longs sued in Tribal Court, asserting, inter alia, discrimination, breach-of-contract, and bad-faith claims. Over the Bank's objection, the Tribal Court concluded that it had jurisdiction and proceeded to trial, where a jury ruled against the Bank on three claims, including the discrimination claim. The court awarded damages plus interest to the Longs. In a supplemental judgment, the court also gave the Longs an option to purchase that portion of the fee land they still occupied, nullifying the Bank's sale of the land to the non-Indians. After the Tribal Court of Appeals affirmed, the Bank filed suit in Federal District Court, contending that the tribal judgment was null and void because, the Tribal Court lacked jurisdiction over the Longs' discrimination claim. The District Court granted the Longs summary judgment, finding tribal court jurisdiction proper because the Bank's consensual relationship with the Longs and their company brought the Bank within the first category of tribal civil jurisdiction over nonmembers outlined in Montana v. United States. The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed, concluding that the Tribe had authority to regulate the business conduct of persons voluntarily dealing with tribal members, including a nonmember's sale of fee land. The Bank filed a petition for certiorari review.


Did the Tribal Court have jurisdiction over the Longs’ discrimination claim?




The United States Supreme Court held that the Tribal Court did not have jurisdiction to adjudicate a discrimination claim concerning the non-Indian Bank’s sale of its fee land. Moreover, the Tribal Court lacked jurisdiction to hear that claim because the Tribe lacked the civil authority to regulate the Bank's sale of its fee land. According to the doctrine enunciated in Montana v. United States, tribes were not permitted to regulate the sale of non-Indian fee land. The Court averred that the Tribe cannot justify regulation of the sale of non-Indian fee land by reference to its power to superintend tribal land because non-Indian fee parcels have ceased to be tribal land.

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