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Williams v. Lee

United States Supreme Court
358 U.S. 217 (1959)


  Lee (defendant) operated a general store under a federal license on a Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona, where Williams (plaintiff) and his wife purchased goods on credit. While Lee was not Native American, Williams and his wife were Navajo Indians living on the reservation. The Navajo Indian Reservation was set apart by treaty in 1868 as reserved for use solely by the Navajo people. Lee brought suit against Williams for nonpayment in state court, and Williams filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that proper jurisdiction existed in the tribal court. At the time of the dispute, the reservation had in place a sophisticated legal system and tribal court. The state court denied the motion and entered judgment in favor of Lee. The Supreme Court of Arizona affirmed, finding that state courts may have jurisdiction over civil suits between Native American and non-Native Americans, even if the suit was based on an act committed on a reservation. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.

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