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Home Archive Volume 62 Volume 62, Issue 6 It Wasn't an Accident: The Tribal Sovereign Immunity Story
It Wasn't an Accident: The Tribal Sovereign Immunity Story

By William Wood | 62 Am. U. L. Rev. 1587 (2013)

In its latest pronouncement on the subject, the Supreme Court suggested in Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma v. Manufacturing Technologies that tribal sovereign immunity is an accidental doctrine that developed with little analysis or reasoning. The Court, however, overlooked important history, context, and (some of its own) precedent which shows that the doctrine arose quite intentionally through relationships negotiated across centuries between the United States and the Indian nations involved in the foundational tribal immunity cases. Indeed, the doctrine’s origins and the principles underlying it date back as far as those for the federal, state, and foreign governments’ immunities, and, historically, the reasoning and justifications for these doctrines are the same. Although the Kiowa Court upheld tribal immunity, it did so grudgingly and only after disparaging its own precedent, misconstruing the doctrine’s origins, questioning whether to perpetuate it, and inviting Congress to abrogate it.

In the wake of Kiowa, other courts have seized upon the Supreme Court’s marginalization of tribal immunity to limit the doctrine’s scope in cases where they do the job Kiowa said was for Congress and weigh the competing policy interests at stake. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these courts use Kiowa’s discrediting of tribal sovereign immunity’s legitimacy to tip the balance against tribal immunity. This article tells the real story of tribal sovereign immunity, providing doctrinal perspective and historical clarity in order to correct the misunderstandings about tribal immunity’s origins, development, and purposes.

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