by Paul Thibeault, Esq.
Wabanaki Legal News, Spring 2009 edition
The State's highest court has made a final decision in the long legal battle between Pamela Francis and the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Housing Authority. On December 11, 2008 the Supreme Judicial Court (also known as the Law Court) held that the state courts had no jurisdiction and that the tribal court had exclusive jurisdiction over the case because it involves internal tribal matters.
The complicated history of the case has been described in previous issues of the Wabanaki Legal News. The dispute arose in 1998. Francis claimed that she was illegally evicted and that the Housing Authority unlawfully denied her ownership interest in a Turnkey III house at Pleasant Point. In addition to filing a case in Passamaquoddy Tribal Court Francis tried to pursue claims in the Washington County Superior Court. She claimed that the tribal court
and tribal law would not provide her an adequate legal forum for all of her claims.
In the tribal court law suit Judge Rebecca Irving decided on March 3, 2008 that the Housing Authority had violated Tribal law. On the major claims, the Judge awarded Francis $10,000 in damages for Emotional Distress and ordered the Housing Authority to give Francis a deed to the property. The decision was appealed to the Passamaquoddy Appellate Court. On April 16, 2009 the Appellate Judge decided in favor of Francis on the major claims. The Appellate Judge also held that the trial court should have awarded Francis reasonable attorney's fees. The case was sent back to the trial court to determine the amount of attorney's fees.
The parallel state court case was going on in the Washington County Superior Court at the same time as the tribal court case. It was appealed to the Law Court five times. In its latest, and final, decision the Law Court upheld the ruling of Superior Court Justice E. Allen Hunter that the state court had no jurisdiction because the legal dispute involves "internal tribal matters" under the terms of the 1980 Settlement between the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the State of Maine. However, the Law Court did not wholly adopt the legal reasoning of Justice Hunter. As a result, while the case is a legal victory for tribal sovereignty, it may not be as far-reaching as it might have been if the Law Court had followed Justice Hunter's lead.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two approaches is that Justice Hunter believed that the term "internal tribal matters" is inherently ambiguous and should be interpreted
according to the historical judicial rule that requires courts to narrowly construe ambiguous statutes that restrict the sovereignty of Indian tribes. (This is one of a set of interpretive rules known collectively as the Indian Law Canons of Construction). Based on that rule Justice Hunter was convinced that the provision of affordable housing for tribal members is an example of "related activities" that are so closely tied to basic functions of tribal self-government that they should be considered "internal tribal matters" even when the tribal government chooses to use non-tribal means to achieve its goals. Justice Hunter's approach seems to be a workable and flexible approach that will promote effective tribal self-government in Maine's Indian Country.
While agreeing with Justice Hunter's conclusion that the state court did not have jurisdiction, the Law Court took a somewhat different approach to the issue of internal tribal matters. It did not concede the ambiguity of the "internal tribal matters" language and it did not expressly rely on the historical Indian Law canons of construction, as Justice
Hunter did. Instead the Court reviewed the criteria developed in its prior decisions, and those of the federal courts, on the "internal tribal matters" issue. Then the Court
listed seven factors present in the Francis case which indicate that it involves an internal tribal matter over which the Tribal Court had exclusive jurisdiction. One of those
factors was that all of the disputed actions involved only members of the tribe and agencies controlled by the Tribe.
The Law Court did not clearly adopt Justice Hunter's concept of using non-tribal means to achieve the goals of tribal self-governance. But the Law Court took a step in that direction by recognizing that, even though the Housing Authority was incorporated under state law, it is actually an arm of tribal government that serves important tribal goals.