Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation v. Wold Engineering, P. C.

PETITIONER: Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation
RESPONDENT: Wold Engineering, P. C.
LOCATION: San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority

DOCKET NO.: 82-629
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: North Dakota Supreme Court

CITATION: 467 US 138 (1984)
ARGUED: Nov 29, 1983
DECIDED: May 29, 1984

Hugh Mc Cutcheon - on behalf of the Respondent
Louis F. Claiborne - on behalf of the U.S. as amicus curiae
Raymond Cross - on behalf of the Petitioners

Facts of the case


Media for Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation v. Wold Engineering, P. C.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 29, 1983 in Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation v. Wold Engineering, P. C.

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Cross, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Raymond Cross:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case raises a unique issue.

Does Public Law 280 authorize a state to absolutely bar actions against non-Indians by Indians if they arise on an Indian reservation?

This matter is here on certiorari to review a decision of the North Dakota Supreme Court affirming the State District Court's dismissal of Petitioner's negligence and breach of contract action against Respondent Wold Engineering.

The facts of the case are simple.

Petitioner, a federally recognized Indian tribe known as the Three Affiliated Tribes, employed Wold Engineering to construct a water supply system on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in northwestern North Dakota.

The project known as the Four Bears Water Project was intended to provide a water supply from Lake Sakakawea to a portion of the reservation population.

However, after completion of the project in 1977 defects were discovered in that system that prevented the accomplishment of that objective.

Despite attempts at correction by Wold Engineering of the system Petitioner, Three Tribes, commenced their negligence and breach of contract action in the State District Court for the Northwestern Judicial District of North Dakota.

At trial in 1982 Wold moved to dismiss the action on the grounds that the federal law prohibited state jurisdiction over the action.

The trial court agreed on the grounds that the Three Tribes failed to consent to Public Law 280 civil jurisdiction over the reservation in favor of the state and on that ground dismissed Petitioner's action.

On appeal to the Supreme Court of North Dakota the State Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal construing a state statute, Chapter 2719, which is included in our appendix to our brief, as evidencing the state legislature's intent to disclaim any jurisdiction over the matter until the Indians consented to Public Law 280 jurisdiction in the civil area.

The court noted in the course of its decision which is in the appendix of the petition for cert that state judicial jurisdiction had extended to these actions against non-Indians by Indians prior to the enactment in 1963 of Chapter 2719.

On that basis the State Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of the tribe's action against Wold Engineering.

Only two sections of Public Law 280 are involved in this matter, Section 6 and Section 7.

Under that jurisdictional classification scheme North Dakota is a so-called optional state and a disclaimer state meaning that under Section 7 it must take appropriate action to amend its state constitution to remove the federal disclaimer imposed in its admitting act, and secondly under Section 7 of Public Law 280 it must enact affirmative legislation assuming jurisdiction under Section 7.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Cross, I take it since you are appealing from the judgment of the highest court of the State of North Dakota it is your position that there is some federal constitutional principle or federal statute which that decision has violated.

Raymond Cross:

That is right, Your Honor.

We feel that the state court misconstrued Public Law 280 in holding that it prohibits state court jurisdiction over actions of this sort.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, do you think the Supreme Court of North Dakota actually read Public Law 280 to reach that result?

I thought its opinion could just as well be construed to mean that the referendum in the early sixties had represented judgment by the people of South Dakota that they did not want their courts to exercise this kind of jurisdiction.

Raymond Cross:

Your Honor Justice Rehnquist, the decision itself indicates plainly that the state court regarded judicial jurisdiction of the state as extending to these actions before the enactment of the state statute involved under the authority of Public Law 280.

The sole source of the authority reading it either as an authorization or as compelling the state legislature to take that action is the source of that disclaimer.

So taking a look at the state judicial history under the state constitution and under the course of state judicial declaration the state had judicial jurisdiction over these actions prior to that enactment.

That enactment was explicitly taken under Section 7 of Public Law 280 and consequently it concerns the question of federal interpretation.

William H. Rehnquist:

But up to then it is all questions of state law is it not?

Raymond Cross:

That is correct, Justice Rehnquist.

Harry A. Blackmun:

This case is a curious one, is it not, because here the tribe is asserting jurisdiction in the state court and usually these cases come up here in just the reverse posture.

Raymond Cross:

That is correct, Justice Blackmun.