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FISHER V. DISTRICT COURT, 424 U. S. 382 (1976)

U.S. Supreme Court

Fisher v. District Court, 424 U.S. 382 (1976)

Fisher v. District Court

No. 75-5366

Decided March 1, 1976

424 U.S. 382


Tribal Court of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe held to have exclusive jurisdiction over an adoption proceeding arising on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in which all parties are members of the Tribe residing on the reservation.

(a) Montana state court jurisdiction over such a proceeding would interfere with the powers of self-government conferred upon the Tribe by federal law and exercised through the Tribal Court; would subject a dispute arising on the reservation among reservation Indians to a forum other than the one they have established for themselves; and, as the record in this case indicates, would risk conflicting adjudications affecting the custody of the child sought to be adopted, and would correspondingly diminish the tribal court's authority.

(b) No federal statute sanctions such interference with tribal self-government. Title 25 U.S.C. § 372a, which is concerned solely with the documentation necessary to prove adoption by an Indian in proceedings before the Secretary of the Interior, and which recognizes adoption "by a judgment or decree of a State court" as one means of documentation, nowhere addresses the jurisdiction of state courts to render such judgments or decrees.

(c) Even assuming that the Montana courts properly exercised jurisdiction over Indian adoptions prior to the organization of the Tribe, that jurisdiction has now been preempted by creation of a Tribal Court with jurisdiction over adoptions pursuant to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

(d) Denying tribal member plaintiffs access to Montana courts in adoption proceedings does not constitute impermissible racial discrimination, since (1) the Tribal Court's exclusive jurisdiction derives not from the plaintiffs' race, but from the Tribe's quasi-sovereign status under federal law, and (2) even if a jurisdictional holding occasionally denies an Indian plaintiff a forum to which a non-Indian has access, such disparate treatment of the Indian

Page 424 U. S. 383

is justified as a benefit to the class of which he is a member by furthering the congressional policy of Indian self-government.

Certiorari granted; ___ Mont. ___, 536 P.2d 190, reversed.

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