WASHINGTON, Dec 7 (Reuters) - Conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday appeared unwilling to allow a Native American tribal court to oversee a child sexual molestation lawsuit against retailer Dollar General Corp.
The nine-justice court heard a one-hour oral argument in an appeal brought by Dollar General, which argued that the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians’ tribal court should not be permitted to hear the case. The lawsuit should have been filed in state court because it involved a non-tribe member, the company contended.
If Dollar General wins, the jurisdiction of tribal courts across the United States would be mostly limited to disputes between tribe members.
The parents of a tribe member allege their son was molested by the male manager of a Dollar General store on the tribe’s land. The boy, age 13 at the time, was working at the store in the summer of 2003 as part of a youth training program.
The family sued Dollar General and the store manager in tribal court in 2005, seeking $2.5 million in damages. The store was operated by Dollar General subsidiary Dolgencorp LLC.
Dollar General sought to block the case in tribal court by suing in federal court in 2008, but a federal judge and later the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals both ruled in favor of the tribe.
The Obama administration and six states, including Mississippi, filed court papers backing the tribe.
The Supreme Court’s conservative members appeared skeptical about American Indian tribes overseeing cases that could result in multi-million dollar judgments.
“We have never before recognized Indian court ... jurisdiction over a nonmember, have we?” asked Chief Justice John Roberts.
Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested that tribes could resolve the problem in the future by requiring companies with which they do business to sign contracts that say disputes will be heard in tribal court.
The court’s liberals seemed more supportive of the tribe, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioning why tribal courts were viewed negatively in contrast to state or federal courts.
“We are just assuming these judges are not neutral,” Sotomayor said.
A ruling is due by the end of June.
The case is Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-1496. (Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)