Monday, July 6, 2009

Sovereign Immunity Does Not Apply to Quiet Title Action Regarding Real Property Subject to Continuing State Court Jurisdiction

A new case from division I, Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians v. Smale, docket # 6239-4, held that the state, not the tribe, had continuing jurisdiction over a piece of real property, even after the property was deeded to the tribe.
In this case, the plaintiffs filed a quiet title action in state court claiming they had acquired the property through adverse possession from the previous non-Indian owners.
The defendants then transferred ownership of the land to the Stillaguamish Tribe through a statutory warranty deed. The plaintiffs then joined the Tribe as a defendant. The defendants claimed sovereign immunity.
The doctrine of sovereign immunity states that an Indian tribe is immune from suit unless: 1) it has expressly waived its immunity; or 2) the US Congress has expressly abrogated the tribe’s sovereign immunity.
The Tribe argued that, because of the tribe’s sovereign immunity, the state court had no jurisdiction over the tribe, and therefore the tribe could not be sued.
The plaintiffs, on the other hand, argued that the basis of the state court’s jurisdiction over the matter was not personal, or in personam, jurisdiction over the tribe. Rather, it was in rem jurisdiction over the property. Sovereign immunity, therefore, did not apply.
The trial court found for the plaintiffs. The appellate court affirmed.

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