The doctrine of sovereign immunity stands for the principle that a nation is immune from suit in the courts of another country. It was first recognized by U.S. courts in the case of The Schooner Exchange v. M'Faddon, 11 U.S. (7 Cranch) 116, 3 L. Ed. 287 (1812).
At first, courts espoused a theory that provided absolute immunity from the jurisdiction of a U.S. court for any act by a foreign state.
But beginning in the early 1900s, courts relied on the political branches of government to define the breadth and limits of sovereign immunity.
In 1952, the U.S. State Department reacted to an increasing number of commercial transactions between the United States and foreign nations by recognizing foreign immunity only in noncommercial or public acts, and not in commercial or private acts.
However, it was easily influenced by foreign diplomats who requested absolute sovereign immunity, and the application of sovereign immunity became inconsistent, uncertain, and often unfair.
Complaints about inconsistencies led to the passage of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (28 U.S.C.A. §§ 1 note, 1330, 1332, 1391, 1441, 1602–1611).
By that act, Congress codified the theory of sovereign immunity, listing exceptions for certain types of acts such as commercial acts, and granted the exclusive power to decide sovereign immunity issues to the courts, rather than to the State Department.
Indian tribes have been granted sovereign immunity status by the United States, and therefore they generally cannot be sued without the consent of either Congress or the tribe.
This immunity is justified by two considerations: First, historically, with more limited resources and tax bases than other governments, Indian tribes generally are more vulnerable in lawsuits than are other governments.
Second, granting sovereign nation status to tribes is in keeping with the federal policy of self-determination for Indians.
Indian tribes are immune from suit whether they are acting in a governmental or a proprietary capacity, and immunity is not limited to acts conducted within a reservation.
However, individual members of a tribe do not receive immunity for their acts; only the tribe itself is immune as a sovereign nation.