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Williams v. Lee

A Question Of Jurisdiction

If Hugh Lee's collection suit against Paul and Lorena Williams had taken place nearly anywhere else in the United States, the dispute might have gone no further than a local claims court. Instead the Williams v. Lee case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court, where its outcome hinged on precedents set over a century earlier.

Lee was the proprietor of the Ganado Trading Post, a general store located on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona. After trying unsuccessfully to collect money for goods he had sold on credit to Paul and Lorena Williams, Lee decided to sue in the Arizona courts. The Williams, both of whom were members of the Navajo tribe, responded by stating that the disputed transaction took place on Navajo land and therefore should be decided by a Navajo tribal court. They asked the state courts to dismiss the case.

The two sides soon found themselves arguing before the Arizona Supreme Court, not about Lee's bill, but over who had jurisdiction in the case. The state court decided in favor of Lee. Although Lee was a non-Indian operating a business on Navajo property under a valid Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs license, the Arizona court noted that no act of Congress prevented state courts from settling civil suits between Indians and non-Indians on reservation lands.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the Williams' appeal of the Arizona Supreme Court decision on 20 November 1958 because the case concerned the important question of state power over Indian affairs. On 12 January 1959, the Court unanimously reversed the Arizona court's ruling, deciding that jurisdiction in the matter belonged to the Navajo tribal court.

The Court looked to an 1832 case as an important precedent regarding the interference of states in internal Indian affairs. In 1828 the state of Georgia had passed statutes forbidding the Cherokee to enact laws on their own reservation or to testify against white men in non-Indian courts. Later state laws made it a crime for any white man to set foot on Cherokee land after 1 March 1831 without taking an oath of allegiance to the state and without a permit from Georgia's governor. Far from being a measure to protect the Cherokee, the latter laws intended to remove whites already living on the reservation with Cherokee permission, particularly missionaries aiding in Indian efforts to resist the encroachments of white settlers and their state government.

The law was tested when a Christian missionary named Samuel A. Worcester was arrested by the state of Georgia for refusing to leave the Cherokee Reservation. Although Worcester was licensed by the federal government to practice as a missionary on Cherokee land, he was in violation of Georgia law and found himself sentenced to four years in a state penitentiary. Worcester's appeal reached the Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in a politically controversial 1832 decision. Writing for the 1958 Court in the Williams v. Lee decision, Justice Black quoted Chief Justice John Marshall's opinion a century and a quarter earlier:

The Cherokee nation . . . is a distinct community, occupying its own territory . . . in which the laws of Georgia can have no force, and which the citizens of Georgia have no right to enter, but with the assent of Cherokees themselves or in conformity with treaties, and with the acts of Congress. The whole intercourse between the United States and this nation is, by our constitution and laws, vested in the government of the United States.

The Supreme Court's Worcester v. Georgia decision implicitly recognized all Indian tribes as self-governing "nations" within the borders of the United States. The ruling also allowed the federal government to assume all power in dealing with the tribes, invalidating state pretensions to such power. The state of Georgia ignored the U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding Samuel Worcester, who was forced to ask for a state pardon to obtain his freedom. The Court's ruling that state powers were invalid on Indian land nevertheless became an accepted principle of American law in the century after his release.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Williams v. Lee - A Question Of Jurisdiction, The Treaty Of 1868