Strate v. A-1 Contractors

RESPONDENT:A-1 Contractors
LOCATION:Camp Newfound Owatonna

DOCKET NO.: 95-1872
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 520 US 438 (1997)
ARGUED: Jan 07, 1997
DECIDED: Apr 28, 1997

Jonathan E. Nuechterlein – Department of Justice, on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the Petitioners
Melody L. McCoy – Argued the cause for the petitioners
Patrick J. Ward – Argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

Vehicles driven by Gisela Fredericks and Lyle Stockert collided on a portion of a North Dakota state highway that runs through the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The stretch of highway within the reservation is open to the public, affords access to a federal water resource project, and is maintained by North Dakota under a federally granted right of way that lies on land held by the United States in trust for the Three Affiliated Tribes and their members. While neither driver was a member of the Tribes or an Indian, Fredericks filed a personal injury action in the Tribal Court of the Three Affliated Tribes against Stockert and A-1 Contractors, who owned the truck Stockert was driving at the time of the collision. The Tribal Court ruled that it had jurisdiction over Fredericks’ claim and therefore denied A-1 Contractors and Stockert’s motion to dismiss. The Northern Plains Intertribal Court of Appeals affirmed. A-1 contractors and Stockert then filed a action in the District Court against Fredericks, the Tribal Court, and Tribal Judge William Strate, seeking a declaratory judgment that, as a matter of federal law, the Tribal Court lacked the jurisdiction to adjudicate Fredericks’ claims. A-1 Contractors and Stockert also sought an injunction against further Tribal Court proceedings. The District Court dismissed. It held that that the Tribal Court had civil jurisdiction over Fredericks’ complaint. In reversing, the en banc Court of Appeals concluded that the Tribal Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the dispute.


Does a tribal court have jurisdiction over a civil action against an allegedly negligent driver and the driver’s employer, neither of whom is a member of the tribe, when an accident occurs on a portion of a public highway maintained by the State under a federally granted right of way over Indian reservation land?

Media for Strate v. A-1 Contractors

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 07, 1997 in Strate v. A-1 Contractors

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 28, 1997 in Strate v. A-1 Contractors

To Strate versus A-1 Contractors will be announced by Justice Ginsburg.

A motor vehicle accident occurred on a state highway, running through an Indian reservation.

The personally injured party and the allegedly liable parties are non-Indians.

This case presents the question, whether tribal courts have authority to entertain the personal injury lawsuit arising from such an accident.

Petitioner, Gisela Fredericks was seriously injured when her car collided with the truck driven by respondent, Lyle Stockert on a strip of a North Dakota highway running through an Indian reservation.

North Dakota maintains a 6.59 strip under a right of way granted by the United States.

The right of way lies on land.

The United States holds in trust for the Three Affiliated Tribes of The Fort Berthold Reservation and the tribe members.

Although, neither Fredericks nor Stockert is a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes.

Fredericks sued Stockert and his employer, A-1 Contractors, in Tribal Court.

After unsuccessfully contesting the Tribal Court’s jurisdiction within the Tribal Court system, Stockert and A-1 filed this federal lawsuit which challenges the authority of the Tribal Court to adjudicate Fredericks’ case.

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit concluded that the Tribal Court lacks jurisdiction over the suit.

We affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

The petitioners, Frederick and the Tribal Court referred to no treaty or statute authorizing the Tribes to entertain highway accident tort suits between nonmembers.

Petitioners urge, however, the power to hear and decide such disputes is inherent in the Tribe’s political sovereignty.

As to tribal sovereignty in civil matters, we decided a pathmarking case in 1981, Montana against United States.

We held in Montana that the inherent sovereign powers of a tribe generally do not extend to nonmembers’ activities when those activities take place on non-Indian owned land within the reservation.

The Montana case itself directly concerned Tribal regulatory authority not Tribal Court jurisdiction.

We hold in today’s opinion that absent different instruction from Congress, a Tribe’s adjudicatory jurisdiction over a nonmember conduct is not larger than its regulatory jurisdiction.

The Montana decision governs this case even though the highway in question runs over land held in trust for the Tribe.

The right of way, North Dakota, acquired for the State’s highway renders the stretch of road equivalent for a nonmember governance purposes to alienated non-Indian land.

And the Montana tribes have civil authority over the conduct of nonmembers on non-Indian land only in limited circumstances not present here.

Frederick’s personal injury lawsuit is distinctly non-tribal in nature.

Our case stems not from a consensual relationship with the Tribes but from a run of the mill highway accident between two non-Indians.

Opening the Tribal Court for Fredericks’ optional use is neither necessary to protect tribal self government nor crucial to the Tribe’s political integrity, economic security, health or welfare.

Cases such as this one or within state or federal governance, Fredericks, we note timely commenced a similar lawsuit in the North Dakota State Court.

And the respondents assert that they are prepared to proceed in that form.

The opinion is unanimous.