UTE INDIAN TRIBE OF THE UINTAH AND OURAY RESERVATION, a federally recognized Indian Tribe, and a federally chartered corporation; UINTAH AND OURAY TRIBAL BUSINESS COMMITTEE; SHAUN CHAPOOSE, Chairman of the Uintah and Ouray Tribal Business Committee; UTE ENERGY HOLDINGS, a Delaware LLC, Plaintiffs - Appellants,
HONORABLE BARRY G. LAWRENCE, District Judge, Utah Third Judicial District Court, in his individual and official capacities; LYNN D. BECKER, Defendants - Appellees.
from the United States District Court for the District of
Utah (D.C. No. 2:16-CV-00579-RJS)[*]
Frances C. Bassett (Jeffrey S. Rasmussen, Thomas W.
Fredericks, Jeremy J. Patterson, and Thomasina Real Bird,
with him on the briefs), Fredericks Peebles & Morgan,
Louisville, Colorado, for Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and
Ouray Reservation, Utah, Plaintiffs-Appellants.
K. Isom, Isom Law Firm, PLLC, Salt Lake City, Utah, for
Plaintiff, Counterclaim Defendant-Appellee, Lynn D. Becker.
M. Johnson and Keisa L. Williams, Utah Administrative Office
of the Courts, Salt Lake City, Utah, for Third-Party
Defendant-Appellee, Judge Barry G. Lawrence.
HARTZ and EBEL, Circuit Judges.
appeal arises from a contract dispute between Lynn Becker and
the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray
Reservation. Our concern, however, is not the merits of
the dispute but jurisdiction. Mr. Becker, who is not an
Indian, pursued his claim against the Tribe in Utah state
court. The Tribe responded by filing suit in the United
States District Court for the District of Utah, asserting,
among other things, that the state court lacked
subject-matter jurisdiction to hear the case. But the federal
district court in turn held that it lacked jurisdiction to
consider the Tribe's challenge to the jurisdiction of the
state court. We respectfully disagree with the district
court. Exercising jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291,
we reverse and remand for further proceedings. We hold that
the Tribe's claim-that federal law precludes state-court
jurisdiction over a claim against Indians arising on the
reservation-presents a federal question that sustains federal
contract at issue is the Independent Contractor Agreement
(the Contract) between the Tribe and Mr. Becker, a former
manager in the Tribe's Energy and Minerals Department.
Mr. Becker claims that the Tribe breached the Contract by
failing to pay him 2% of net revenue distributed to Ute
Energy Holdings, LLC from Ute Energy, LLC. After Mr. Becker
filed suit in Utah state court, the Tribe filed this suit
against him and Judge Barry Lawrence, the state judge
presiding over Mr. Becker's suit, seeking declarations
that (1) the state court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction
over the dispute, (2) the Contract is void under federal and
tribal law, and (3) there is no valid waiver of the
Tribe's sovereign immunity for the claims asserted in
state court. The Tribe also sought a preliminary injunction
ordering the defendants to refrain from further action in the
state-court proceedings. The Tribe invoked jurisdiction under
28 U.S.C. § 1331 (federal-question jurisdiction) and
§ 1362 (federal question when suit brought by an Indian
tribe). Jurisdiction under § 1331 is limited to
"actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or
treaties of the United States"; and jurisdiction under
§ 1362 requires that "the matter in controversy
arise under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the
United States." After a hearing on the Tribe's
request for a preliminary injunction, the district court
concluded that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction and
dismissed the suit as moot.
review de novo the district court's conclusion that it
lacked jurisdiction. See Kaw Nation ex rel. McCauley v.
Lujan, 378 F.3d 1139, 1142 (10th Cir. 2004).
issue before us must be examined in light of a long history
of federal law regarding Indian affairs. "[T]he
Constitution grants Congress broad general powers to
legislate in respect to Indian tribes, powers that . . . have
[been] consistently described as plenary and exclusive."
United States v. Lara, 541 U.S. 193, 200 (2004)
(internal quotation marks omitted). In particular, "the
policy of leaving Indians free from state jurisdiction and
control is deeply rooted in the Nation's history."
McClanahan v. State Tax Comm'n of Ariz., 411
U.S. 164, 168 (1973) (brackets and internal quotation marks
omitted). In Worcester v. State of Georgia, 31 U.S.
515 (1832), the Supreme Court considered a challenge to
Georgia's attempt to regulate activity on the Cherokee
Reservation. The State sought to punish a federally licensed
non-Indian missionary for his refusal to leave the
Reservation. Chief Justice Marshall declared that "[t]he
Cherokee nation . . . is a distinct community occupying its
own territory, . . . in which the laws of Georgia can have no
force, " and that "[t]he whole intercourse between
the United States and this nation, is, by our constitution
and laws, vested in the government of the United
States." Id. at 561. Although the Supreme Court
has since "departed from Chief Justice Marshall's
view that the laws of a State can have no force within
reservation boundaries, " Nevada v. Hicks, 533
U.S. 353, 361 (2001) (brackets and internal quotation marks
omitted), federal supremacy over tribes has remained a
constant, see Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Cmty.,
134 S.Ct. 2024, 2030 (2014) ("[T]he tribes are subject
to plenary control by Congress."); cf. United States
v. Jicarilla Apache Nation, 564 U.S. 162, 175 (2011)
("Throughout the history of the Indian trust
relationship, we have recognized that the organization and
management of the trust is a sovereign function subject to
the plenary authority of Congress.").
federal law regulates a tribe's right to exercise
authority over non-Indians. See Nat'l Farmers Union
Ins. Cos. v. Crow Tribe of Indians, 471 U.S. 845, 851-52
(1985) (on "questions concerning the extent to which
Indian tribes have retained the power to regulate the affairs
of non-Indians . . ., the governing rule of decision has been
provided by federal law."). With respect to tribal-court
jurisdiction in particular, "whether a tribal court has
adjudicative authority over nonmembers is a federal
question." Plains Commerce Bank v. Long Family Land
& Cattle Co., 554 U.S. 316, 324 (2008). When parties
challenge tribal jurisdiction, "it is federal law on
which they rely as a basis for the asserted right of freedom
from Tribal Court interference." Nat'l Farmers
Union, 471 U.S. at 853.
the Supreme Court has made clear that state adjudicative
authority over Indians for on-reservation conduct is greatly
limited by federal law. (The parties do not dispute that Mr.
Becker's contract claim arose on the reservation.) The
leading decision on the matter in the civil context is
Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217, 217-18, 223 (1959),
which held that an Arizona state court could not exercise
civil jurisdiction over a suit brought by a non-Indian store
operator against a Navajo couple to collect on a debt
incurred at a store located on the reservation. To rule
otherwise, the Court said, ...