Last updated on: 12/28/2009 | Author:

Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez

Decided on May 15, 1978; 436 US 49

Woman sues her Indian tribe in federal courts alleging the tribe practices gender discrimination



A. Issues Discussed: Civil Rights (gender), Sex Discrimination, 5th and 14th Amendments

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does Title I of the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 (ICRA) authorize Indian tribe members to bring civil suits against an Indian tribe or officers of an Indian tribe in federal court?


A. Background:

Respondant, Julia Martinez, a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo, an Indian tribe, married a Navajo Indian and had two children with him. Two years before her marriage, the Santa Clara Pueblo passed a membership ordinance which denied membership to respondent’s children because their father was not a Santa Clara Pueblo Indian.  As a result of their exclusion from the Santa Clara Pueblo, the children could not vote in tribal elections or hold office in the tribe. In addition, if their mother died, the children were banned from residing on the tribe or inheriting her house. On the other hand, if male members of Santa Clara Pueblo married outside the tribe and had children, the membership ordinance did not apply to their children.

Respondent and her daughter filed a suit in the United States District Court of New Mexico. She claimed that the membership ordinance discriminates on the basis of sex and ancestry in violation of Title I of the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 (ICRA),  which provides that “no Indian tribe shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of its laws.”

Petitioners, Santa Clara Pueblo and its governor, Lucario Padilla, moved to dismiss the suit, arguing that the court lacked jurisdiction to decide intra-tribal controversies affecting matters of tribal self-government and sovereignty.

The court denied the tribe’s motion to dismiss, finding that the ICRA implicitly authorized the suit. Following trial, the court held in favor of petitioners and sustained the membership ordinance under the ICRA. The court found that the membership ordinance reflected the traditional values of patriarchy, which play an important role in tribal life, and that the tribe should decide which values promote cultural survival.

Respondent appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. The court upheld the district court’s ruling on jurisdiction, but found in favor of the respondent on the case’s merits. The court ruled that because the membership ordinance discriminated on the basis of sex, there must be a compelling interest to justify the discrimination. It also held that the tribe’s interest in the membership ordinance was not substantial enough to justify its discriminatory effect. Petitioners appealed to the US Supreme Court, and the high court granted certiorari.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Richard B. Collins argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief was Alan R. Taradash.
Marcelino Prelo argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioners.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Stephen L. Pevar and Joel M. Gora filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union as amici curiae, urging affirmance. George B. Christensen and Joseph S. Fontana for the National Tribal Chairmen’s Association; and by Reid Peyton Chambers, Harry R. Saschse, and Glen A. Wilkinson for the Shoshone and Araphoe Tribes of the Wind River Indian Reservation, et. al, filed briefs of amici curiae, urging reversal.

Briefs of amici curiae were filed by Alvin J. Ziontz for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation; and by Philip R. Ashby, William C. Schaab, L. Lamar Parrish, and Richard B. Wilks for the Pueblo de Cochiti et al.


“Indian tribes are ‘distinct, independent political communities, retaining their original natural rights’ in matters of local self-government. Worcester v. Georgia.  Although no longer ‘possessed of the full attributes of sovereignty,’ they remain a ‘separate people, with the power of regulating their internal and social relations.’ United States v. Kagama.

Nothing on the face of Title I of the ICRA purports to subject tribes to the jurisdiction of the federal courts in civil actions for injunctive or declaratory relief… In the absence here of any unequivocal expression of contrary legislative intent, we conclude that suits against the tribe under the ICRA are barred by its sovereign immunity from suit.

By not exposing tribal officials to the full array of federal remedies available to redress actions of federal and state officials, Congress may also have considered that resolution of statutory issues under 1302, and particularly those issues likely to arise in a civil context, will frequently depend on questions of tribal tradition and custom which tribal forums may be in a better position to evaluate than federal courts. As is suggested by the District Court’s opinion in this case, efforts by the federal judiciary to apply the statutory prohibitions of 1302 in a civil context may substantially interfere with a tribe’s ability to maintain itself as a culturally and politically distinct entity.

As we have repeatedly emphasized, Congress’ authority over Indian matters is extraordinarily broad, and the role of courts in adjusting relations between and among tribes and their members correspondingly restrained.  Congress retains authority expressly to authorize civil actions for injunctive or other relief to redress violations of 1302, in the event that the tribes themselves prove deficient in applying and enforcing its substantive provisions. But unless and until Congress makes clear its intention to permit the additional intrusion on tribal sovereignty that adjudication of such actions in a federal forum would represent, we are constrained to find that 1302 does not impliedly authorize actions for declaratory or injunctive relief against either the tribe or its officers. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is, accordingly, reversed.”

Justice Vote: 1 Pro vs. 7 Con

  • Marshall, T. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stewart, P. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Renquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Took no part in the decision making process of the case

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the US Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in a 7-1 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.