Blatchford v. Native Village of Noatak

RESPONDENT:Native Village of Noatak
LOCATION:Residence of Daniel and Lyrissa Touby

DOCKET NO.: 89-1782
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1990-1991)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 501 US 775 (1991)
ARGUED: Feb 19, 1991
DECIDED: Jun 24, 1991

Lawrence A. Aschenbrenner – on behalf of the Respondents
Rex E. Lee – on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case


Media for Blatchford v. Native Village of Noatak

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – February 19, 1991 in Blatchford v. Native Village of Noatak

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 24, 1991 in Blatchford v. Native Village of Noatak

Antonin Scalia:

The second case is Blatchford versus Native Village of Noatak No. 89-1782.

That case is also here on petition for writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In 1980, Alaska enacted a revenue sharing plan that provided annual payments to Alaskan native villages about $25,000 to each village.

The State’s attorney general expressed his opinion that the statute was unconstitutional because it restricted the grants to a racially exclusive group.

To meet that objection, the state legislature subsequently expanded the program to cover all unincorporated communities regardless of the racial composition of their members.

Since the available funds had to be distributed more broadly, each native village received less than it previously would have.

The respondents in this case are two native villages that were affected by this change.

They challenged the new program claiming that it too violated the equal protection clause and they sought damages for the legislature’s action.

The District Court dismissed the action on the basis of the Eleventh Amendment which recognizes the state’s sovereign immunity against suit in Federal Courts.

The Court of Appeals reversed.

First, on the ground that congress had abrogated state immunity from suit by Indians and then upon reconsideration, on the ground that the Eleventh Amendment did not apply to suits by Indian tribes.

In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

We first reject the view advanced by respondent that the Eleventh Amendment does not apply to suits by Indian tribes because Indian tribes are sovereigns, not individuals.

We rejected that same argument many years ago in a case called Monaco versus Mississippi, where we held that states retained their immunity against suits by foreign nations.

If immunity survives against foreign sovereigns, there is no reason why it would not survive against domestic sovereigns as well.

Likewise, we reject respondent’s claim that waiver of state immunity against suit by Indian tribes is inherent in the constitution.

Where we have found such an inherent waver in the structure of the constitution, it has been an even exchange.

Each state, for example, has waved its own immunity from suits by other states in exchange for their wa’ver of immunity from suits by it.

Here, however, there would be no mutuality.

States would become subject to suit by Indian tribes while Indian tribes remain immune to suits by states.

This is not inherent in the constitution.

Finally, we do not believe that the statute granting District Court’s jurisdiction to hear federal claims by Indian tribes 28 U.S.C. 1362 operates to negate state immunity.

Contrary to respondent’s suggestion, this is neither a delegation to tribes of the federal government’s authority to sue on the Indian’s behalf nor is it a congressional abrogation of state immunity.

Section 1362 is simply a grant of jurisdiction to hear claims arising under federal law.

A grant of jurisdiction to hear a claim does not, in of itself, negate defenses to that claim.

Justice Blackmun has filed a dissent in which Justices Marshall and Stevens joined.