Judge Weighs if Tribal Officials Must Comply to Subpoenas

Judge considering whether tribal officials need to comply with subpoenas demanding access to tribal government documents

By Dillon Tabish

GREAT FALLS — A federal court judge in Great Falls is considering legal arguments over whether tribal officials need to comply with subpoenas demanding access to tribal government documents, or if tribes are immune from court orders to produce evidence because they are sovereign nations.

The dispute comes from a $5 million lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs over alleged damages, the Great Falls Tribune reported. Terryl Matt, a Cut Bank attorney and enrolled member of the Assiniboine Tribe of Montana, is suing the bureau for damage that occurred when the bureau built a new road across his property. The road project came after widespread flooding on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in June 2011.

The U.S. District Court for Montana issued a subpoena asking Fort Belknap Tribal Council President Mark Azure to turn over tribal documents related to the road construction project. Azure refused to comply with the federal subpoena in July, citing tribal sovereign immunity.

Neither the tribe nor Azure is named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Matt filed a motion in August asking the court to find Azure in contempt and force him to produce the documents. In response, tribal attorneys filed a motion to void the subpoena, arguing the federal court does not have authority over the Fort Belknap tribes in this case.

“Under the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity, an Indian tribe is subject to suit only where Congress has authorized the suit or the tribe has waived its immunity,” states a trial brief filed by the Fort Belknap Indian Community. “This court does not have the authority to compel non-party employees/officials of the council to testify or produce records.”

A U.S. District Court judge heard arguments Tuesday. An official from the federal clerk of court’s office said a ruling is likely next week.

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