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: Court in Ouachita County

DOCKET NO.: 84-1973
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: North Dakota Supreme Court

CITATION: 476 US 877 (1986)
ARGUED: Mar 24, 1986
DECIDED: Jun 16, 1986

Gary H. Lee - on behalf of the Respondent
North Dakota - for an Indian tribe such as petitioner to avail itself of the jurisdiction of North Dakota courts as a plaintiff, it must also accept the jurisdiction of those courts when it is properly named as a defendant in them
Raymond Cross - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case


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

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 24, 1986 in Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation v. Wold Engineering, P. C.

Warren E. Burger:

The Court will hear arguments first this morning in Three Affiliated Tribes against Wold Engineering Company.

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

Raymond Cross:

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

This matter is before this Court for the second time on a Writ of Certiorari to the Supreme Court of North Dakota.

This case squarely presents the issue left undecided by this Court in its previous decision in this matter.

That issue is whether a state may enact a statute barring tribal Indians but not non-Indians, from state court for hearing damage actions against non-Indian defendants in state court.

Respondent, Wold Engineering, urges this Court to uphold the state statute that bars all tribal Indians residing on the four Reservations in North Dakota from access to state court for the enforcement of their damages actions against non-Indians.

This Court previously held in this matter that such a state statute is not required nor authorized by federal law, particularly Public Law 280, as a measure to protect the tribal Indians in the area of their rights.

The facts of this case are simple.

This case involves a breach of contract and negligence action for damages brought by the Three Affiliated Tribes against Wold Engineering, a non-Indian firm in North Dakota.

This action arose on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

In 1974, the Three Affiliated Tribes contracted with Wold Engineering to design and build a water supply system known as the Four Bears Water Supply System on the Fort Berthold Reservation.

However, in 1977, after the project was completed, the Tribes discovered that the project failed to supply a safe and continuous water supply to the portion of the Reservation people it was intended to serve.

Despite efforts at correction by Wold Engineering, the project never functioned properly and in 1980 the Three Affiliated Tribes commenced this action in the State District Court for the Northwest Judicial District of North Dakota.

The trial court, upon Wold's motion, dismissed the Tribes' complaint, holding that actions arising on the Indian reservations in North Dakota brought by tribal members cannot be enforced against non-Indian defendants.

In 1982, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's judgment and held that actions arising on the reservations and brought by tribal Indians against non-Indians cannot be heard in state court because of a state disclaimer known as the Indian Civil Jurisdiction Act of 1963, as well as the influence of Public Law 280 ousted the state court from subject matter jurisdiction.

This Court granted the Tribe the first petition for Certiorari and after hearing reversed... pardon me, vacated the judgment of the North Dakota Supreme Court, holding that Public Law 280 neither authorized nor required such a jurisdictional bar to tribal Indians' access to state court.

Further, the Supreme Court, this Court, remanded the case for further proceedings in light of the Supreme Court's holding that this matter should be scrutinized by the court below for possible constitutional infirmities and further that Chapter 27-19 was not authorized by Public Law 280 or any other federal law as a jurisdictional disclaimer of subject matter jurisdiction in this category of actions.

The court below on remand held that the matter of state law alone, that Indians, tribal Indians, residing on the reservation were barred from maintaining these actions.

The reason for this barrier arises from the state jurisdictional statute, known as the Indian Civil Jurisdiction Statute of 1963, and that this state law alone barred the tribal Indians access to state court in these cases.

Byron R. White:


Raymond Cross:

Unless, Justice, the consent to the full extension... that is unless the tribal Indians either collectively as a tribal group or individually consent to the full extension of state civil jurisdiction over the pertinent property.

The only exception to this extension would be that the state court's power to levy and execute on tribal property may be exempted by state or federal law.

Byron R. White:

--And, the waiver... the condition is not only for this case, but for all cases?

Raymond Cross:

That is right.

The waiver would have the jurisdictional effect of conferring general judicial jurisdiction on the court for all cases.

That would be true whether the consenting Indian was a tribal government or whether the Indian was an individual seeking to pursue a damage action in state court, Justice.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Would you have the same objection if the state conditioned its consent to use its courts just to the waiver of any objection to proceedings in connection with that particular case; for example, a counterclaim and making the tribe subject to discovery orders and contempt sanctions and so forth, in connection with the particular case?

Raymond Cross:

Justice O'Connor, as we conceded in this Court in the previous hearing in this matter, the Three Affiliated Tribes would be subject to the counterclaim of the Respondent, Wold Engineering, up to the extent of jurisdictional--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

I thought you said as a setoff, but not--