Alaska Supreme Court reaffirms tribal immunity from lawsuits

The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed that Alaska Native tribes have sovereign immunity from state courts in a decision released Friday.

The 19-page ruling upheld a lower court’s decision involving a legal fight between two Juneau-based tribal governments over federal funds.

The Douglas Indian Association claimed it was owed its share of federal transportation money after it left a tribal consortium set up by Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.

In 2015, the association filed a state lawsuit seeking about $1 million from unspent funds from the seven years it was part of the consortium.

Judge Louis Menendez rejected Douglas Indian Association’s lawsuit in January, affirming that Central Council and two of its top officials named in the suit had sovereign immunity because of the tribe’s federally recognized tribal status.

Douglas Indian Association filed an appeal with the Alaska Supreme Court this year arguing the state’s standard is different than the federal rules.

The supreme court disagreed which settles the question of sovereign immunity for tribes and tribal officials in state court.

Central Council released a statement following Friday’s ruling:

“Tlingit and Haida is pleased that the Alaska Supreme Court has aligned itself with what has long been settled law in other jurisdictions, that tribal sovereign immunity, unless explicitly waived, protects tribes from the burdens of litigation,” Madeline Soboleff Levy, general counsel for Central Council, wrote. “The Supreme Court’s opinion offers clear guidance, clarifying this issue for the first time in Alaska courts in a thoughtful and concise opinion.”

The case had attracted the attention of other Alaska Native tribes because it tested sovereign immunity for tribes.

Tanana Chiefs Conference of Fairbanks had filed a brief in support of Central Council’s position.

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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