Supreme Court Declines to Review School District’s Legal Fight With Indian Tribe

By Mark Walsh — January 08, 2018 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear the appeal of an Arizona school district which fears that it may face exposure in American Indian tribal courts over employment decisions involving schools on land leased on Indian reservations.

The Window Rock Unified School District in Fort Defiance, Ariz., operates on land within the Navajo Nation reservation. Its 1,850 enrollment is about 98 percent American Indian. The district was sued by four school employees (non-teachers) over various employment decisions. The employees, members of the Navajo tribe, lost in a state trial court and mid-level appeals court. But rather than try a further appeal with the Arizona Supreme Court, the employees turned to a Navajo tribal court under a Navajo law requiring Indian preferences in employment.

The school district then filed a suit in federal court to block any tribal proceedings. The district argued that tribal courts have no jurisdiction over school district employment decisions, even where the schools operate on tribal lands.

A federal district court ruled for the school district, but a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled 2-1 last year that tribal jurisdiction over the district was “plausible” because the employees’ claims “arise from conduct on tribal land and implicate no state criminal law enforcement interests.”

The district appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the 9th Circuit majority misinterpreted high court Indian law precedents and that the case was one of “national importance.”

School boards “need to know whether tribes have or do not have adjudicatory jurisdiction over claims relating to their employment decisions,” the district argued.

The district drew a friend-of-the-court brief from the National School Boards Association and the Arizona School Boards Association. The brief says that more than 90 percent of the 700,000 American Indian children in the United States attend public schools on or near tribal lands.

The 9th Circuit’s ruling “threatens to create havoc for school districts by permitting tribal courts to exercise concurrent jurisdiction over employment claims asserted by district employees working on Indian reservations,” the brief said.

Such concurrent jurisdiction “threatens the finality of court rulings and allows disgruntled plaintiffs to forum shop and re-litigate claims, causing unnecessary and increased expenditure of already scarce resources on legal proceedings rather than serving the educational needs of Native students,” the brief added.

But in a brief urging the justices not to take up the case, the Navajo Nation argued that no tribal court has yet claimed any jurisdiction over school employment cases, and that the 9th Circuit merely held that tribal court jurisdiction was not “plainly lacking.”

The tribe also argued that its lease with the school district requires the district to abide by Navajo law.

“This court should not broadly consider an important question of tribal jurisdiction in a case where the jurisdictional analysis may be heavily influenced, if not decided, by a single tribal nation’s treaty,” the Navajo brief said.

The justices on Jan. 8 declined without comment to hear the school district’s appeal in Window Rock Unified School District v. Reeves (Case No. 17-447).

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.

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