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Casino Suits a Gamble in Tribal System

Posted Oct 12, 2007 1:55 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Plaintiffs who want to sue Indian-owned casinos are finding justice depends on tribal court systems that may be lacking in fairness, some lawyers contend.

Many tribes with casinos and other commercial enterprises have waived sovereign immunity, permitting suits against them. But usually such cases must be brought in tribal courts. Many tribal justice systems are sophisticated, but in some cases the judges may have close ties to the tribes and damages may be limited, the Wall Street Journal reports (sub. req.).

Some tribes don’t even have formal courts. Out of 560 federally recognized tribes, only 275 have court systems to handle civil cases.

One litigant who is unhappy with the result in the tribal justice system is Nellie Lawrence, who broke her shoulder in a collision with someone running through a casino. Lawrence was 92 at the time and had to stay in a hospital for 25 days while her shoulder healed.

The tribe didn’t have a formal court, so it appointed a jury of five tribal members who also had responsibility for overseeing the casino she was suing. The presiding judge was a tribe defense lawyer who had opposed her suit in state courts. Lawrence lost in the hearing, and so far Florida courts have ruled they have no jurisdiction in the case. Her appeal is pending before the Florida Supreme Court.

Prior ABAJournal.com posts have focused on the tribal criminal justice system. Laws and precedent limit the authority of tribes to prosecute crimes, yet federal prosecutors are often reluctant to devote enough resources to step in and prosecute. Those who are prosecuted are often treated more harshly by federal courts.

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