Yes, the Blue Lake Rancheria is using its sovereign immunity to defend itself again, this time from an angry California resident who sued the construction company that had done shoddy work when building her home, only to realize that the homebuilder had been sold to the tribe. And once again the Rancheria doesn't seem to be doing anything illegal -- it's just that they get to play by different rules, leaving a wake of disenchanted Californians behind them.
But this time the case might make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, pitting the tribe against the Pacific Legal Foundation.
When Rita Carls of El Dorado Hills sued her homebuilder for shoddy construction, she never imagined she'd be in a head-to-head battle with an Indian tribe over sovereign immunity.
Even more bewildering to Carls, now 69, and her family: Her home was built on nontribal land, purchased from a nontribal business, and the tribe she's fighting in court is located hundreds of miles away in Humboldt County.
Concerned that what happened to Carls could happen to any Californian, the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, which specializes in property rights litigation, is trying to take her case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Attorneys with the foundation say Carls is a victim of tribal sovereign immunity gone awry and the case could provide the court with an opportunity to clarify the doctrine's scope.
"The implications are huge," said PLF attorney Meriem Hubbar.
But a spokeswoman for the 53-member Blue Lake Rancheria says that everything the tribe did was legal, a stance she says is backed up by every court that the suit has reached.
"Challenges to sovereign immunity go on all the time," said Jana Ganion, Blue Lake's spokeswoman.
The Pacific Legal Foundation has filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court (a prior California appellate court ruled in favor of the tribe and the California Supreme Court has denied a petition for review).
The question the PLF hopes to pose at the U.S. Supreme Court level is: "When a tribe voluntarily acquires a non-tribal business, with existing contract obligations, does sovereign immunity allow the tribe to repudiate those obligations?"