BOISE, Idaho — A recent Idaho Supreme Court decision sets a precedent for ensuring tribal court judgments are upheld throughout the state, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe said this week.
The state’s highest court ruled Friday that tribal court decisions must be recognized in other Idaho courts.
“Across the country, there are very few times this has happened in a state court,” said Tyrel Stevenson, the tribe’s legislative director. “This is rare and exciting. We are really pleased the court has offered this kind of respect to another government.”
The decision stems from a 2014 lawsuit filed in tribal court against a northern Idaho couple living inside the reservation who built a dock along the St. Joe River without a permit from the tribe.
Kenneth and Donna Johnson are not members of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. The couple maintained their dock and pilings were above the historical high-water mark designated when the Coeur d’Alene Reservation was created in 1873 and they didn’t need the tribe’s permission because the dock and pilings weren’t on tribe land.
The tribe sent a letter to the couple asking them to remove the dock and pilings and go through the proper tribal permit process. According to court documents, the Johnsons ignored not only the tribe’s original letter, but also four separate notices about a lawsuit the tribe filed against the couple in tribal court.
Kenneth Johnson, who has since passed away, and his wife, Donna, removed the dock several years ago in an effort to appease the tribe but the tribe pressed forward anyway in their lawsuit, said Norman Semanko, a Boise-based attorney who represented the Johnsons. The pilings still remain.
Semanko joined the lawsuit after the Johnsons had chosen to ignore the court’s prior notices.
Eventually, the tribal court sided with the tribe and issued a $17,400 civil penalty against the Johnsons. To get the couple to pay the fine, the tribe filed a motion in state court to enforce the order.
That’s when the Johnsons countered the tribe lacked jurisdiction. They also argued the tribal court was too biased to treat them fairly.
The Idaho Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that the couple was given proper due process to fight their case in tribal court.
“(The) Johnsons had more than sufficient notice and opportunity to be heard in the tribal court,” wrote Justice Joel Horton in the court’s 12-page ruling. “The record shows the Johnsons were informed of the proceedings on four occasions before default judgment was entered. Despite this, they elected to simply ignore the proceedings in tribal court.”
Horton added that as a rule, tribes don’t have jurisdiction over non-members. However, tribal courts do have jurisdiction when it involves regulations that involve a direct effect on the welfare, political integrity or economic security of the tribe.
“This is something the tribe has faced for a long time,” Stevenson said. “The argument has been that tribal courts aren’t as good. We feel like that is largely why the Johnsons didn’t show up to court.”
The court’s Friday decision overturned sections of a 1982 Idaho Supreme Court ruling dictating that state courts can enforce tribal court judgments.
The court instead decided to comply with a 1997 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision. That decision said tribal judgments must still be recognized unless the judgment was obtained by fraud; the judgment conflicted with another final judgment; or the judgment violated public policies of the United States.
The Johnsons won’t be forced to pay the $17,400 civil penalty because the justices found the state court couldn’t enforce a civil penalty ordered by the tribal court.
“This is a huge relief to Donna to not have to pay the fine, she is very pleased with the decision,” Semanko said.