9th Circuit: Hard To Complain About Indian Tribe’s Eminent Domain Home Cookin’ When Condemnee Develops Indian Land

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Robert Thomas

BY ROBERT THOMAS – There isn’t a whole lot of eminent domain action in the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Grand Canyon Skywalk Development, LLC v. Sa Nyu Wa, Inc., No. 12-15634 (Apr. 26, 2013), and the issue the court analyzes is the relative jurisictions of the federal and tribal courts, but it still is an interesting read nonetheless.

The case involves the Hualapai Tribe’s efforts to condemn the rights of the non-Indian developer of that big glass bridge over the Grand Canyon. A dispute arose between the developer and a corporation chartered by the tribe over a revenue-sharing contract, and while the corporation and the developer were arbitrating their disagreement, the tribe instituted an eminent domain action in tribal court to condemn the developer’s “intangible rights in the contract, which practically speaking left [the tribal corporation] in contract with the Hualapai Tribe.” Slip op. at 5. The developer filed suit in U.S. District Court, asserting the tribe lacked jurisdiction to condemn its property because, among other reasons, the tribe was acting in bad faith.


The District Court held that the developer would need to exhaust tribal remedies before the federal court could hear its claims, and the Ninth Circuit agreed. Read the opinion if you’d like the details of why, but the short story is that if you voluntarily enter into an agreement with an Indian tribe to undertake a development in Indian Country, you don’t have much to complain about when a tribal court exercises jurisdiction, even if you are not Indian. And you can only go to federal court after you’ve exhausted your tribal court remedies.

More on the Ninth Circuit’s ruling here, from Turtle Talk

Grand Canyon Skywalk Development, LLC v. Sa Nyu Wa Inc., No. 12-15634 (9th Cir. Apr. 26, 2013)



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Robert H. Thomas is one of the preeminent land use lawyers in Hawaii. He specializes in land use issues including regulatory takings, eminent domain, water rights, and voting rights cases. He has tried cases and appeals in Hawaii, California, and the federal courts. Robert received his LLM, with honors, from Columbia Law School where he was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar, and his JD from the University of Hawaii School of Law where he served as editor of the Law Review. Robert taught law at the University of Santa Clara School of Law, and was an exam grader and screener for the California Committee of Bar Examiners. He currently serves as the Chair of the Condemnation Law Committee of the American Bar Association’s Section on State & Local Government Law. He is the Hawaii member of Owners’ Counsel of America, a national network of the most experienced eminent domain and property rights lawyers. Membership in OCA is by invitation only, and is limited to a single attorney from each state. Robert is also the Managing Attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation Hawaii Center, a non-profit legal foundation dedicated to protecting property rights and individual liberties. Reach him at rht@hawaiilawyer.com He is also a frequent speaker on land use and eminent domain issues in Hawaii and nationwide. For a list of upcoming events and speaking engagements.


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