Montana Supreme Court Holds that Tribal Court has Exclusive Jurisdiction over Probate of Fee Lands Owned by a Tribal Member within the Reservation Boundaries

On May 19, 2011, the Montana Supreme Court held that the Blackfeet Tribal Court has exclusive jurisdiction over the probate of the estate of a deceased member of the Blackfeet Tribe, whose property was located entirely within the exterior boundaries of the Blackfeet Reservation. Estate of Big Spring, 2011 MT 109, 2011 WL 2162990 (2011). In doing so, the Montana Supreme Court overruled the law declared by a 1973 Montana Supreme Court case establishing the “Iron Bear test” for determining whether a Montana state court may assume jurisdiction over a dispute that involves Indians and arises within the exterior boundaries of an Indian reservation. State ex rel. Iron Bear v. District Court (“Iron Bear”). It is rare that a State Supreme Court overrules one of its own decisions, and it is especially gratifying that this one comes out in favor of tribal sovereignty.

In 2003, William Big Spring, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe living on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, died leaving an estate consisting of trust land and fee land located within the exterior boundaries of the Reservation. Big Spring’s ex-wife, representing two of Big Spring’s surviving children, Julie and William, filed in the State District Court to have the estate probated. The District Court granted her request and appointed her personal representative of the estate. In handling the estate, she sold the fee land to a non-Indian. Six months after the closing of the estate, Big Spring’s mother challenged the probate in state district court. Extensive litigation ensued.

William and Julie apparently objected to the proposed settlement to close the estate. They argued that the state court must dismiss the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. They argued that this probate belonged in the Blackfeet Tribal Court because, at the time of his death, Big Spring was a member of the Blackfeet Tribe living on the Reservation, and all of his property was located within the exterior boundaries of the Reservation.

The District Court refused to dismiss, holding that state jurisdiction over the matter was proper under both Montana and U.S. Supreme Court law precedents. The District Court applied the Iron Bear three-pronged test, which required the court to determine: (1) whether federal treaties and applicable statutes have preempted state jurisdiction, (2) whether the exercise of state jurisdiction would interfere with reservation self-government, and (3) whether the tribal court had been exercising jurisdiction in other cases in such a manner as to pre-empt state jurisdiction.

The District Court’s decision was appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, which reversed, holding that exclusive jurisdiction over the matter rested in Blackfeet Tribal Court. In doing so, the Court expressly overruled Iron Bear and a string of cases that followed the Iron Bear precedent, stating that Iron Bear relied on a misinterpretation of federal case law in establishing the three-prong test. The Court determined that “[t]he Iron Bear test is at odds with federal statutes and federal case law because the test confers greater subject matter jurisdiction upon Montana state courts than is permitted by federal law.”

The Court concluded that the proper method for determining whether a state has jurisdiction, as articulated in the 1959 U.S. Supreme Court case Williams v. Lee, is “whether the state action infringed on the right of the reservation Indians to make their own laws and be ruled by them.” The Court explained that this jurisdictional test is further measured by analyzing two “independent but related barriers” to state court jurisdiction: “[1] whether the exercise of jurisdiction by a state court or regulatory body is preempted by federal law or, if not, [2] whether it infringes on tribal self government.”

The Montana Supreme Court determined the first barrier to state jurisdiction existed and thus did not need to discuss the second barrier, whether state jurisdiction would infringe on tribal self-government. The Court concluded that Public Law 280 preempted the state district court from assuming jurisdiction over the probate of Big Spring’s estate, because Montana and the Blackfeet Tribe had not taken the necessary steps for Montana to assume civil jurisdiction over the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

The Estate of Big Spring ruling strengthens tribal sovereignty in Indian Country within Montana, and could serve as a persuasive, although non-binding, precedent for other state courts in the future.

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