Inyo County v. Paiute-Shoshone Indians of Bishop Community of Bishop Colony, 538 U.S. 701, 13 (2003)

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Cite as: 538 U. S. 701 (2003)

Stevens, J., concurring in judgment

Justice Stevens, concurring in the judgment.

In my judgment a Native American tribe is a "person" who may sue under 42 U. S. C. 1983. The Tribe's complaint, however, does not state a cause of action under 1983 because the county's alleged infringement of the Tribe's sovereign prerogatives did not deprive the Tribe of "rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws" within the meaning of 1983. At bottom, rather than relying on an Act of Congress or a provision of the Constitution, the Tribe's complaint rests on the judge-made doctrine of tribal immunity—a doctrine that "developed almost by accident." Kiowa Tribe of Okla. v. Manufacturing Technologies, Inc., 523 U. S. 751, 756 (1998). Because many applications of that doctrine are both anomalous and unjust, see id., at 760, 764-766 (Stevens, J., dissenting), I would not accord it the same status as the "laws" referenced in 1983.

It is demeaning to Native American tribes to deny them the same access to a 1983 remedy that is available to any other person whose constitutional rights are violated by persons acting under color of state law. The text of 1983— which provides that 1983 defendants are "person[s] who, under color of [State law,]" subject any "other person" to a deprivation of a federal right—adequately explains why a tribe is not a person subject to suit under 1983. For tribes generally do not act under color of state law. But that text sheds no light on the question whether the tribe is an "other person" who may bring a 1983 suit when the tribe is the victim of a constitutional violation. The ordinary meaning of the word "person" as used in federal statutes,1 as well as the specific remedial purpose of 1983, support the conclu-1 The Dictionary Act, which was passed just two months before 1983 and was designed to supply rules of construction for all legislation, provided that "the word 'person' may extend and be applied to bodies politic and corporate . . . ." Act of Feb. 25, 1871, 2, 16 Stat. 431.


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