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Las Vegas businesses may need to go to tribal court over Skywalk

A ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals may affect where businesses in Las Vegas must go to court to resolve a dispute over business conducted on a Native American reservation. The 9th Circuit court recently ruled that a Nevada company must sue an Indian tribe in tribal court instead of going directly to U.S. federal court to pursue its business litigation.

The company, Grand Canyon Skywalk Development, built the horseshoe-shaped glass walkway that hangs over the Grand Canyon in Arizona on land belonging to the Hualapai Tribe. The walkway, called the Grand Canyon Skywalk, was also operated by the company — until the tribe condemned it and took over operations in 2008.

The company sued in U.S. federal court. When the Hualapai objected on jurisdictional grounds, Grand Canyon Skywalk Development argued that it had the right to the tribe in U.S. court and that the tribal court would be biased against it. But on April 26, a federal appellate judge ruled that jurisdictional rules required the company to exhaust its litigation options in tribal court before it can move to U.S. court.

Interestingly, the ruling may be somewhat moot. Between the time when the Court of Appeals heard the jurisdictional arguments and issued its ruling, the tribal court ruled in favor of Skywalk Development and ordered the tribe to pay $28 million in revenue for the business’ work operating the walkway. The tribe declared bankruptcy following that ruling, shifting part of the case to U.S. bankruptcy court.

Other aspects of the case, including who has the right to operate the Skywalk, remains in tribal court. Skywalk Development does not object to the tribal court hearing those parts of the dispute, the business’ attorney said.

Source: Arizona Daily Star, “Tribal courts equipped to handle business disputes, says 9th Circuit,” April 27, 2013

John P. Aldrich
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