Fletcher Preview of Lewis v. Clarke

Here is “Supreme Court case could expose Indian tribes to new legal risks” at The Conversation.


One would be tempted to think this is a case about fairness, about guaranteeing a forum for non-Indians to sue tribal employees who might be cloaked in a tribe’s immunity from the suit. In my opinion, fairness to the Lewis couple, however, comes at the expense of fairness to the tribe.

Recall that the tribe does provide a forum to resolve personal injury claims against it in tribal court, but with a one year limitations period. Under that law, the Mohegan tribal court has confirmed awards against tribal police officers; indeed, the tribe likely has settled thousands of claims over the years.

I have long argued that Indian tribes should provide an adequate forum to address the negligent actions of their employees. The Mohegan tribe has done so here by establishing a tribal court and a legal process for resolving personal injury claims. In fact, Mohegan was one of the earliest tribes to start doing so, way back in the 1990s. But personal injury lawyers have complained about Mohegan law because it bars punitive damages and other doctrines that can balloon judgment awards.


Background materials on the case are here.

NYTs: “Supreme Court’s ‘Long Conference’: Where Appeals ‘Go to Die’”


I’m unaware of any Indian law grants from the so-called “long conference” since we started the blog in 2007.

From NARF’s page, here are the petitions currently pending:

Jensen was initially set for the long conference, but the Court asked the respondents to file a response brief (a CFR) and that moved back the date.

Hobia, Jim Thorpe, and Torres are currently set for the long conference. Parker and Ho-Chunk likely will as well.

Tribal Supreme Court Project Ten Year Report — And Quick Commentary


TSCT 10 Year Report – FINAL March 2012

This is an important report for tribal leaders and advocates to read. From the introduction:

Now in existence for ten years, the Tribal Supreme Court Project can look back to review the degree to which its work has been effective. From OT01 through OT10, several developments are notable. First and foremost is the win-loss record for Indian tribes before the Court. Figure 1 of the Report is a table of the Indian Law Cases Where Certiorari Was Granted. Overall, the win-loss percentage has remained the same with the Tribes winning only about 25% of their cases. However, under the Rehnquist Court (OT01-OT04), Indian tribes increased their winning percentage to greater than 50%—winning 4, losing 3, and 2 draws in 9 Indian law cases heard on the merits. This winning percentage was a vast improvement from a deplorable winning percentage of 20% in the past. The work of the Tribal Supreme Court Project appeared to be paying major dividends. But in the past six terms of the Roberts Court (OT05-OT10), Indian tribes have witnessed their winning percentage plummet to 0%—losing all 7 cases argued on the merits.

A few comments:

  • The Supreme Court outcomes aren’t the whole story. The TSCP has been very successful in two areas — organizing amicus brief strategy and getting cert denied in several cases — although the Project is just one player in the process (the OSG, the tribal parties, and others are often as or more important). Last Term’s dismissal of the Madison County petition was a major success.
  • Bringing in members of the Supreme Court “Bar” has been critical in limiting the damage to tribal interests. David Fredericks’ work, for example, in Plains Commerce Bank may have changed that case from a potential disaster for tribal jurisdiction purposes to a 5-4 heartbreaker (or, a case that really didn’t decide anything). Names matter to the Supreme Court (well, as does quality of advocacy, too, to be sure). Of course, there’s an arms race and tribal interests are now facing the Ted Olsons and Paul Clements of the world, so in some ways its a wash. In fact, this may be a reason why there have been no additions to the First Thirteen American Indians to argue before the Supreme Court since 2001.
  • The requirements for success in the Supreme Court for tribal interests remain (as they probably always have): (1) the federal government’s participation as a party or an amicus in support of tribal interests and (2) treaty or statutory interpretation cases. The Rehnquist/Roberts Courts are clearly not common law courts, unlike the Warren/Burger Courts, and that heavily disfavors federal Indian common law claims. And more and more, as the federal government’s conflicts within the trust responsibility become almost too large to handle, the effectiveness of the federal government’s support in Supreme Court advocacy as an amicus is waning considerably.
  • Our late, departed friend David Getches was the great scholar on Supreme Court jurisprudence, but he also said (as did Rennard Strickland) that the future of Indian law is in tribal law and in tribal bureaucratic and administrative advocacy. In many ways,  Supreme Court litigation is the reality TV of American Indian law, surreal and wholly unrepresentative of what tribes are doing now.

SCOTUSblog Highlights New Scholarship on the Certiorari Process

From SCOTUSblog (Amanda Frost):

The Supreme Court today has nearly complete discretion over its docket—too much discretion, some argue.  In a world in which the Court grants only about one percent of the 8000 or so petitions it receives each year, the process of “deciding to decide” is almost as important as the Court’s rulings on the merits, and yet the public knows almost nothing about how such decisions are made.

In a forthcoming article in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Professor Kathryn Watts argues in favor of incorporating principles of administrative law into the Court’s case selection process.  She notes that congressional delegations of power to agencies are constrained by public participation, reason-giving, transparency, and the agency’s political accountability, but that none of these factors limit the Supreme Court when selecting cases.

To improve the process, Professor Watts suggests that the Justices be required to publicly disclose their votes at the cert stage.  Doing so might inspire the Justices to explain their decisions in important cases, in part to avoid the impression that the vote indicates the Justices’ views on the merits.  Furthermore, such a rule could lead the Justices to supervise more closely the work of their law clerks, whom many view as exercising too much control over case selection.  Finally, vote disclosure might give the general public, as well as practitioners, a better sense of how the Court makes these all-important decisions.

In a similar vein, Professor Watts suggests that cert. petitions themselves be made publicly available on the Supreme Court’s website.  She hopes that this would lead to more participation by a broader array of amici at the cert. stage, which would better inform the Court’s case selection process.

Finally, Professor Watts adds her voice to that of Professor Amanda Tyler in calling for increased use of the certification process.  Although the law currently allows the federal courts of appeals to certify questions of law to the Supreme Court, the practice is rare.  As both Professors Watts and Tyler argue, the benefit of certification is that it gives the lower courts a role to play in choosing issues for Supreme Court review, adding a fresh perspective to what has become an insular and secretive process.

“Factbound and Splitless” Talk

Here’s the abstract for my talk tomorrow at U-M Law School, “Factbound and Splitless: The Impact of the Certiorari Process on Federal Indian Law.”

The process by which the Supreme Court reviews petitions for writs of certiorari is intended to parse through the thousands of petitions to pick out the most important cases for the Court to decide. These include cases in which there is a split of authority, cases in which a lower court has committed a gross error, or cases in which there is a critical constitutional issue at stake. Cases in which there is no split, cases that will affect only a few people, cases involving simple error correction, or cases involving an unimportant issue are unlikely to be heard by the Court.

Since the 1980s, more and more Justices have resorted to a pool of law clerks for a write-up of each cert petition that includes a recommendation of whether or not the Court should grant cert using these factors. With the release of Justice Blackmun’s papers, the cert pool petitions from the docket years 1986 to 1993 are available for study. The views of Supreme Court clerks in the cert pool memos are often the only written documentation of the Court’s views of the vast majority of petitions that are denied.

The certiorari process creates a structural barrier to the fair adjudication of federal Indian law cases. Because over 80 percent of Indian law cases arise in three circuits, few circuit splits arise, rendering most petitions “splitless.” Moreover, since Indian law cases are often sui generis, they are labeled “factbound.” Most importantly, Supreme Court clerks do not find Indian law cases to be important in regards to the legal issues in dispute, except when the petitioner is a state or local government opposing a tribal interest such as a tribe or a tribal member.

What this means is that the clerks almost never recommend a grant when the petitioner is an Indian tribe or an Indian because the petition is “splitless,” “factbound,” or just unimportant. Conversely, when a state or local government petitions, the Court grants the petition around 75 percent of the time, regardless of whether any split exists. Perhaps this is part of the explanation for why tribal interests have lost 75 percent of their cases before the Court since 1987.

The classic case is a treaty rights case brought by a tribe. If the tribe loses below, the clerks will never find a split in authority because the treaty is unique, making the case sui generis. And Supreme Court clerks almost never find the petitions of Indians and Indian tribes to be important enough to be certworthy. But if the tribe wins below, the opponents usually are state governments, whose cert petitions are viewed favorably by the clerks.

This paper argues, as have occasional Supreme Court clerks, that the Court should recognize the special relationship that exists between the United States and Indian tribes in the certiorari process. The Court should also recognize the structural inequity of the certiorari process in the context of federal Indian law. Both of these changes could be accomplished through an amendment to Supreme Court Rule 10, which articulates the Court’s factors in considering certiorari petitions. Either the Court should grant more petitions filed by tribal interests or deny more petitions filed by tribal opponents.

Hope you can make it. The talk begins at 12:20 in Room 150 in the law school. Lunch is available. The talk is sponsored by the U-M NALSA and the Michigan Journal of Race & Law.

Tales from the Cert Pool: Circuit Splits and Federal Indian Law

Most cases now reach the Supreme Court because of circuit splits or splits in authority between federal courts of appeal and state supreme courts, but federal Indian law is an exception. In my study of the digital archive of Justice Blackmun’s cert pool memos from docket years 1986-1993, perhaps a quarter of cases that attracted the Court’s attention (reaching the so-called “discuss list” at conference) did so because there was a split.

One reason for the lack of circuit splits in federal Indian law is geography — well over 80 percent of cert petitions arise out of the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits (and the states located within those circuits).

Moreover, because the cert petition subject matters are based on treaties or statutes that apply only within a state or a region, there is little likelihood of there ever being a split where the federal circuit and the state supreme court agree. Two examples from my forthcoming paper, “Factbound and Splitless”:

In South Dakota v. Spotted Horse, the Justice Blackmun’s clerk wrote a supplemental memo to the cert pool memo in which she wrote, “As the poolwriter noted, there will never be a split on the question of South Dakota’s jurisdiction over these tribal highways because both CA8 and the S.D. SCt agree that the State is without jurisdiction.” In Tarbell v. United States, a criminal case involving the application of a federal statute that applied to New York Indians, the cert pool memowriter (Mark Snyderman, an O’Connor clerk) noted, “Of course, NY state is probably the only other jurisdiction that would have an opportunity to rule on the issue.”

In one famous instance, the Court granted cert in a case thinking there was a circuit split when there really wasn’t (or more accurately, the split dissolved when the Court decided the case). The cases were Anderson v. Wisconsin Dept. of Revenue and Oklahoma Tax Commission v. Sac and Fox Nation. In Anderson, the WI Supreme Court ruled that Indians living off the rez but working on the rez have to pay state income taxes. In Sac and Fox, the CA10 ruled that Indians living on trust land and working for the tribe on trust land don’t have to pay tax. That’s the split, but the split disappeared when the Court decided that trust land is the same as “Indian Country” — making the factual predicate for the split (the residence of the tribal member: one was off, one was on) disappear.

I go into greater depth in the paper, but the story basically is this. The OTC’s petition in Sac and Fox reached the Court first, but neglected to mention the Wisconsin case. The Wisconsin case reached the cert pool next, alleging the split in authority. The cert pool writer thought the Sac and Fox case was factually messier (because of the trust land question) so recommended the Court grant cert in Anderson. Also, the cert pool memowriter argued that the OTC was a bad litigant for not noting the split in the first place, so recommended that the Court go for the Wisconsin case instead. But Anderson filed indigent, and he shouldn’t have, so the Court had to order him to comply with SCT rules before his appeal would proceed. In the meantime, the Court decided to hear Sac and Fox instead. The Anderson pool memo is here and the Sac and Fox memo is here.

And it’s good thing too. Bill Rice’s mastery of oral argument before the Supreme Court can be heard here (with a little help from Edwin Kneedler).

Had the Court decided Anderson instead, it seems clear to me that it would have ruled against Anderson, who was living off the rez and refusing to pay state income taxes. Who know what would have happened to Sac and Fox Nation?

Talk Announcement: “Factbound and Splitless: The Impact of the Certiorari Process on Federal Indian Law” @ UM Law School

Your humble blogger will be giving a talk at the University of Michigan Law School (co-sponsored, I understand, by the U-M NALSA and the Michigan Journal of Race & Law) on November 12, 2007 at 12:20 PM in Room 150 of Hutchins Hall.

My talk will be called, “Factbound and Splitless: The Impact of the Certiorari Process on Federal Indian Law.”

Here’s the blurb I gave the students on this talk:

I have reviewed each of the 144 Indian law-related cert petitions filed in the Supreme Court from the 1986 to 1993 Terms. Tribal interests began losing 75 percent of their cases in the Court starting in 1987, a significantly worse win rate than even convicted criminal petitioners. I argue that the critical factors the Court looks for in deciding whether to grant cert — “circuit splits,” cases of national “importance,” and cases that are not “factbound” — create structural (and yet wholly discretionary) barriers to the vindication of tribal interests in Supreme Court adjudication.

If you want to read the documents I’ve read in this study, check out the Digital Archive of the Papers of Harry A. Blackmun. And bring your docket numbers, because that’s how it’s organized.