(Adds details on case, paragraphs 4-10)
By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON, June 23 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday allowed a child sexual molestation lawsuit against discount retailer Dollar General Corp to move forward in a Native American tribal court in Mississippi.
The justices were split 4-4, leaving intact a lower court decision that said the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians’ tribal court can hear a family’s civil suit accusing a non-Indian man who managed a Dollar General store located on tribal land of molesting a 13-year-old boy.
Under U.S. law, Native American tribes can act in certain matters as semi-autonomous sovereign entities. Tribal courts primarily allow Native Americans to resolve disputes among tribe members. The Supreme Court has previously limited their jurisdiction.
Dollar General, questioning the impartiality of tribal courts, argued that the suit should have been filed in state court because it involved a non-tribe member. The decision sets no nationwide precedent on tribal court jurisdiction.
The 4-4 split means there were no written opinions in the case.
During Dec. 7 oral arguments in the case, the issue of whether a tribal court could be provide a neutral forum for a legal dispute involving a non-tribe member became a central point. After Dollar General’s lawyer questioned the impartiality of such courts, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor retorted, “You’re just assuming that these judges are not neutral.”
The family of the boy, a tribe member, sued Tennessee-based Dollar General and the store manager in tribal court in 2005 over molestation alleged to have taken place in 2003, seeking $2.5 million in damages. The store was operated by Dollar General subsidiary Dolgencorp LLC.
The boy was working at the store as part of a youth training program.
Dollar General, which has more than 12,300 stores in 43 U.S. states and more than 109,000 employees, 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. (Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)