Federal and state laws have consistently upheld tribal jurisdiction in a variety of cases concerning Indian self-government within Indian country. Tribal jurisdiction is especially important in New Mexico, since there are 19 Pueblos, two Apache tribes, and the Navajo Nation in the state.
As in all states, the Indian tribes and pueblos in New Mexico retain sovereign immunity whereby generally suits against members of tribes and pueblos for accidents occurring within tribal boundaries, including personal injury and wrongful death claims, must be brought in tribal court. This holds true even in case of an auto accident occurring on state road running through Indian lands.
The New Mexico Court of Appeals in Hinkle v. Abeita recently held that tribal courts have exclusive subject matter jurisdiction over a tort claim against an Indian defendant for an accident occurring on a state highway inside Indian country.
Hinkle v. Abeita involved an accident on a state highway between the plaintiff, a non-Indian, and the defendant, and enrolled member of one of the State‘s many Pueblos. The plaintiff filed suit for negligence against the Defendant in state district court. The district court, however, granted the Defendant‘s motion for summary judgment for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Plaintiff appealed but the New Mexico Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court‘s decision.
At the same time, the Court took the opportunity to reiterate that the U.S. Supreme Court‘s 1981 decision in Hartley v. Baca had not been changed by the line of cases following Montana v. U.S, also a 1981 Supreme Court case. Hartley established the criteria for the “infringement test” developed by earlier cases to determine whether state actions infringed on Indian sovereignty rights. These include (1) whether the parties were Indians, (2) whether the occurrence happened on Indian land, and (3) the interest being protected.
Montana and the cases that followed it dealt instead with Indian jurisdiction matters over non-Indian individuals. Montana curtailed an Indian nation‘s ability to regulate hunting and fishing on their lands by a non-member. Cases that followed Montana held that tribal courts did not have jurisdiction over cases where two non-members collide on a highway within Indian lands, or against state police officers who executed a search warrant within a reservation. Other cases that cited Montana held that tribes could not tax non-Indian activity on non-Indian fee land within a reservation.
The Court explained that even though Montana and the cases that followed it curtailed tribal authority over non-members, Montana does not replace the “infringement test” in cases like this one. The Court also stated that state courts should not automatically step in and assume jurisdiction where tribal jurisdiction may be questionable or not clearly spelled out.
Moreover, state courts do not have the power to determine issues of tribal jurisdiction and should not engage in these determinations, since that is the role of Congress. Recognizing the heightened interest in protecting tribal sovereignty, the Court refused to read the Montana cases as a repudiation of tribal sovereignty and instead as marking the limits of tribal sovereignty.
In short, an injured plaintiff looking to file suit against a tribal member in an auto accident that occurred within the boundaries of a pueblo or reservation will almost inevitable be facing tribal court. The Court in Abeita made clear that this holds true even where the accident occurs on a state highway running through Indian lands.