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Two Victories for Utes Provide Light at the End of a Long Tunnel

Two recent court rulings marked victories for the Ute Indian Tribe that provide a light at the end of a long tunnel for the tribe.

The Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northeastern Utah achieved two major victories in U.S. District Court earlier this month. On Monday, May 5, U.S. District Court Judge Bruce Jenkins stated that he would not entertain attempts by the State of Utah and its counties to re-litigate whether the Uncompahgre Reservation had been disestablished or diminished. The court further agreed with the tribe that the court is required to carry out the federal court of appeals’ prior mandate in this long-running legal dispute without any modifications urged by the state and counties.

These victories provide a light at the end of a long tunnel for the Ute Indian Tribe, which has been involved in ongoing jurisdictional litigation with the State of Utah and Uintah and Duchesne counties. The tribe instituted the federal court action last year.

On April 17, 2013, the Ute Indian Tribe filed a complaint through the elected Tribal Business Committee against the State of Utah, Uintah and Duchesne counties and the Utah cities of Roosevelt, Myton and Duchesne to reopen a federal court case the tribe filed in 1975. In that original case, the tribe asked the federal courts to determine the boundaries of its reservations.

After an expensive, complicated, 25-year court battle that included two appeals to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit and two petitions asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, the federal courts resolved all major issues. Once the parties involved agreed to resolve any remaining minor issues, the case was dismissed in 2000.

Fast forward 13 years. The state and counties were openly arguing that their state court’s judges should refuse to abide by any parts of the prior federal court decisions, which had gone against the state. The tribe responded with a Tribea motion to reopen the 1975 case and a new suit against the State of Utah and the counties and cities surrounding the reservation. It also filed motions for injunctions against further violations of the federal court orders by the state, counties and cities.

According to the tribe, its decision to ask the federal court to again look into the matter was largely driven by the fact that, after the federal court resolved reservation boundary issues in favor of the tribe in the 1980s and consistent with the tribe’s understanding of its treaties and federal law, the State of Utah continued in its attempts to overturn the federal court decisions in its own state courts.

“Our tribal members were wrongly being taken straight to state court instead of to our tribal courts,” explained Gordon Howell, chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe. The tribe has a membership of more than 3,000 people in the Whiteriver, Uncompahgre and Uintah bands, and it oversees 1.3 million acres of trust land.

“The state and counties have been challenging the federal court’s decisions in the past few years… sending their police onto our reservation to harass and unlawfully arrest and detain our tribal members, demonstrating that the state and counties do not respect the federal court decision or the tribe’s sovereign rights,” said the Tribal Business Committee, the Ute Indian Tribe’s governing council, in a 2013 statement.

One particular case that garnered nationwide attention was that of 21-year-old tribal member Todd Rory Murray. Murray died of a gunshot wound to the head in 2007, as he was being pursued on foot and ordered to the ground at gunpoint by an off-duty, non-Native Vernal City police officer. The shooting occurred on trust lands more than 25 miles inside the northern boundary of the Ute Indian Tribe’s Uncompahgre Reservation.

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Although a federal judge ruled in favor of the defendants earlier this spring, attorneys with Fredericks Peebles & Morgan, the Louisville, Colorado-based law firm that serves as general counsel to the Ute Indian Tribe, said that Murray’s death was essentially an assassination without due process. The Murray family’s civil rights lawsuit is currently on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

The Tribal Business Committee said it reached a point where it had no other choice but to file a lawsuit against the state and counties.

“The State of Utah’s actions in these cases demonstrate a manifest disregard and disrespect for both the jurisdictional authority of the tribe, as well as our sovereign authority,” the committee explained in its statement. “They are trying to disestablish our reservation and take away our homeland.”

The tribe’s chairman agreed. For misdemeanors occurring within reservation boundaries, Howell said, the tribe has exclusive jurisdiction as a sovereign nation. It had to take definitive action to stop the state and counties from illegally prosecuting tribal members in state court — and to prevent the state and counties from using those prosecutions to re-litigate the tribe’s reservation boundaries.

Indeed, in response to the tribe’s 2013 federal court action, the state and counties asserted — contrary to an issue that they had lost in federal court more than 20 years ago — that the Uncompahgre Reservation was “disestablished” and no longer exists. And, they asserted that they could selectively enforce voluntary agreements with the tribe, as well as re-litigate other issues that they’d previously lost.

U.S. District Court Judge Bruce Jenkins rejected those arguments. At the May 5 hearing, he said he could not and would not entertain any litigation on the question of whether the reservation was disestablished or diminished. The issue was addressed in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1985; in Ute Indian Tribe v. State of Utah (known as Ute III), the Tenth Circuit Court ruled that “the Uncompahgre Reservation was neither disestablished or diminished.” In 1997, it reaffirmed that ruling in Ute Indian Tribe v. State of Utah (Ute V).

The judge also rejected the state’s and counties’ assertion that the Tenth Circuit Court’s mandate in the earlier cases is no longer valid. Rather, the U.S. District Court agreed with the tribe; the court must carry out the mandate of the Tenth Circuit from Ute V.

According to Fredericks Peebles & Morgan, these decisions lay to rest any challenges in front of Judge Jenkins to the Ute Indian Tribe’s Uncompahgre Reservation by the State of Utah and its counties, as well as the state’s and counties’ attempts to re-litigate other issues they previously lost in Ute III and Ute V. The attorneys noted that the court won’t entertain further review of these issues.

And that’s why, Howell said, May 5 brought a welcome sense of relief.

“This is a great victory for our people, for the entire Ute Indian Tribe,” he said.