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Comstock Oil & Gas Inc. v. Alabama & Coushatta Indian Tribes of Tex.

Citation: 32 ELR 20029
No. No. 00-40088, 261 F.3d 567/(5th Cir., 08/27/2001)

The court holds that a Native American tribal court was not created in accordance with federally mandated procedures, that the illegitimately formed tribal court could not exercise jurisdiction over a tribal oil and gas lease dispute, that oil companies, therefore, were not required to exhaust their tribal remedies, and that the tribal council members were not entitled to sovereign immunity against the oil companies' declaratory judgment action in federal court. Between 1979 and 1993, the tribe entered nine oil and gas exploration leases with the companies. In 1998, the tribe filed suit against the companies claiming that certain leases were void because they had not been approved by the Secretary of the Interior. On that same date, the tribe filed suit in a tribal court that was formed after the tribe had filed suit in federal court. Subsequently, the companies sought a declaratory judgment of the nonexistence of the tribal court. The court first holds that the district court correctly concluded that the tribal council members were not entitled to sovereign immunity against the oil companies' declaratory judgment action because in the Fifth Circuit tribal officials are not immune from suits for declaratory and injunctive relief. The court next holds that the district court erred, however, in determining that the tribe was entitled to sovereign immunity against the oil companies' claims for equitable relief. The court additionally holds that the district court properly exercised its jurisdiction to determine the tribal court's existence and jurisdiction of the tribal court and in ruling that the oil companies were not required to exhaust their remedies in the tribal court before seeking a declaratory judgment in federal court. The tribe's constitution and bylaws do not provide for the creation of a judiciary, and no evidence supported a finding that the tribe's constitution was properly amended to allow for the formation of a tribal judiciary. Thus, because no tribal court properly existed, exhaustion was imprudent in the present dispute. The court further holds that the district court properly exercised its jurisdiction over the oil companies' declaratory judgment action. The federal regulations and statutes governing tribal oil and gas leases are adequate to invoke federal question jurisdiction over the instant dispute.

The full text of this decision is available from ELR (9 pp., ELR Order No. L-394).

Counsel for Plaintiffs
Michael D. Sydow
Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand
1111 Bagby St., Ste. 4700, Houston TX 77002
(713) 225-7200

Counsel for Defendants
J. Robert Beatty
Locke, Liddell & Sapp
2200 Ross Ave., Ste. 2200, Dallas TX 75201
(214) 740-8000

[OPINION OMITTED BY PUBLISHER IN ORIGINAL SOURCE]