Tribal Court Caselaw
Finding tribal court decisions can be challenging. There is no comprehensive source. This video demonstrates six databases: Casemaker, Indian Law Reporter on HeinOnline, Lexis, Northwest Intertribal Court System, VersusLaw, and Westlaw (complemented by West's American Tribal Law Reporter in the Caselaw Access Project). (14:27)
Washington Civil Rule 82.5 specifies some relationships between tribal and Washington courts:
(a) When the tribal court has exclusive jurisdiction, then a case brought in state court will be dismissed.
(b) When there is concurrent jurisdiction, the superior court may transfer the case to tribal court if the interests of justice require.
(c) Superior courts shall recognize and enforce tribal court orders.
(d) Superior courts and tribal courts may communicate about co-occurring proceedings.
"CFR Courts" or the Court of Indian Offenses serve as the trial courts for some Oklahoma tribes that do not have their own justice systems. Appeals may be taken from the trial court to the Court of Indian Appeals.
Matthew L. M. Fletcher, Toward a Theory of Intertribal and Intratribal Common Law, 43 Hous. L. Rev. 701 (2006)
Rose Carmen Goldberg, No Tribal Court Is an Island? Citation Practices of the Tribal Judiciary, 3 Am. Indian L.J. 247 (2014) (analyzing 3-year sample of tribal court cases to see what precedents were cited).
Nell Jessup Newton, Tribal Court Praxis: One Year in the Life of Twenty Indian Tribal Courts, 22 Am. Indian L. Rev. 285 (1998)
April L. Wilkinson, Student Paper, A Framework for Understanding Tribal Courts and the Application of Fundamental Law: Trhough the Voices of Scholars in the Field of Tribal Justice, 15 Tribal L.J. 67 (2015)
William P. Zuger, A Baedeker to the Tribal Court, 83 N. Dak. L. Rev. 55 (2007) (Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Court)
There is no comprehensive source for all tribal court decisions, either in print or online.
Some tribes post some or all of their decisions on their websites. See list at the Tribal Court Clearinghouse.
Some tribes publish their cases separately.
Selected tribal court decisions are published in the Indian Law Reporter.
Some tribes' cases are available in commercial databases, Casemaker, Lexis, Versuslaw, or Westlaw.
To find sources for a given tribe, use the National Indian Law Library's Tribal Law Gateway or use our chart below, under Compare Coverage.
Casemaker includes cases from 63 courts (sometimes more than one court for one tribe).
|Update (Aug. 31, 2021): Casemaker merged with Fastcase. It is no longer available separately. Fastcase has posted over 2,000 tribal court cases. It is not clear whether it is all the cases from Casemaker and VersusLaw; Fastcase might still be building the database.|
|Update (Aug. 31, 2021): VersusLaw was acquired by Fastcase and is no longer available separately. Fastcase has posted over 2,000 tribal court cases. It is not clear whether it is all the cases from Casemaker and VersusLaw; Fastcase might still be building the database.|
Westlaw includes tribal court decisions from 22 tribes, plus its Oklahoma Tribal Court Reports collection, which includes "opinions issued by one of the CFR or tribal courts in Oklahoma, including the tribal courts, Courts of Indian Appeals, and Courts of Indian Offenses."
Search interfaces vary. For example, as of December 2020, Casemaker did not allow sorting by date, and VersusLaw did not allow display of more than 200 cases from a single search.
Coverage is spotty for each source. A source that has cases for a given tribe from, say, 1990 might not have them from 2015.
These search results from Dec. 29, 2020, illustrate how skimpy coverage is, considering that more than 250 tribes operate their own court systems:
|Tribal Court Indian Law Bulletin
(NILL) (most from Westlaw)
There is lots of overlap: many cases are available in more than one database.
Navajo Nation cases are often represented, including VersusLaw's only case from 2020 and 10 out of Lexis's 11 cases from 2019 and 2020.
Some tribes' opinions are in multiple sources, some in only one (and some not available at all). How can you compare the coverage of the different sources? The following chart lists tribes and the sources that publish at least some of each tribe's cases.
If you are interested in materials for one tribe in particular, the best access is through the National Indian Law Library's Tribal Law Gateway: