Working Effectively with Tribal Governments

Federal Indian Law and Policy

Mississippi Band of Choctaw Tribal courtroom

Civil Jurisdiction

Civil jurisdiction is the authority of a government to prescribe civil laws and regulations, and to have its courts hear disputes between parties.

Tribes have inherent jurisdiction over their own tribal members living within Indian country, which includes land within the boundaries of a reservation and tribal trust land. In some circumstances, for example, when tribal hunting and fishing rights exist, jurisdiction may extend outside a tribe's territory. Tribal authority over non-tribal members on fee lands within reservations is controlled by the 1981 case of Montana v. U.S., 450 U.S. 544 , in which the Supreme Court stated that tribes retained their inherent power to "exercise some forms of civil jurisdiction over non-Indians on their reservations, even on non-Indian fee lands," but only when:

  • non-members enter into consensual relationships with the tribe or its members; or
  • a non-member's conduct threatens or has a direct effect on the political integrity, economic security, or health or welfare of the tribe.

This analysis, called the "Montana Test," is applied by courts when determining whether Indian tribes have inherent authority to regulate non-member activities on fee lands within reservation boundaries.

In some cases, civil jurisdiction will also be affected by acts of Congress. For example, the Clean Water Act allows qualifying tribes to assume certain responsibilities, such as enforcement of provisions of the Act.

Knowing which jurisdiction exists in a given situation is important to understanding the federal role.

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