10th Circuit Rules for Utes in Jurisdiction Case

     (CN) – The 10th Circuit ended a decades-long jurisdictional squabble between Utah and the Ute Indian Tribe on Tuesday by halting state prosecutions of Utes for crimes on tribal land.
     The Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation sued several Utah counties nearly 40 years ago, alleging they prosecuted crimes without jurisdiction, bypassing the federal government and Ute Tribal Court.
     After a decade of wrangling in district court and on appeal, the 10th Circuit agreed to hear the case en banc.
     Ruling for the Tribe on June 16, the court rejected Utah’s claim that congressional action had diminished three constituent parts of tribal lands – the Uncompahgre Reservation, the Uintah Valley Reservation and national forest areas.
     The Supreme Court also refused to hear the case, which “should have been the end of it,” U.S. Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote.
     State officials, however, allegedly chose “to disregard the binding effect of the 10th Circuit decision in order to attempt to relitigate the boundary dispute in a friendlier forum,” prosecuting tribal members in state court for conduct on tribal land.
     “This, of course, the state had no business doing,” Gorsuch said.
     Within tribal land, generally only the federal government or a tribe may prosecute members for criminal offenses.
     The 10th Circuit eventually ruled the Uintah Valley Reservation, one of the three contested areas, was no longer under tribal jurisdiction.
     “Naturally, the state wanted more,” Gorsuch wrote. “It asked this court to extend [that] reasoning to the national forest and Uncompahgre lands,” as well.
     The appeals court refused, but counties continued to prosecute tribal members for crimes within the boundaries.
     Lesa Jenkins, a tribal member, was charged in Wasatch County Justice Court for alleged traffic offenses in a national forest area, the 10th Circuit noted.
     Judge Clair Poulson and Sheriff Derek Dalton of Duchesne County separately sued the tribe in 2013, claiming its members “persist in bringing actions in the Ute Tribal Court” against state sheriffs, judges and others involved in criminal cases against tribal members.
     Poulson and Dalton demanded orders enjoining the tribe from pursuing the cases and halting a firm, Kozlowicz & Gardner, from prosecuting the claims.
     Ruling on the tribe’s request for a permanent injunction, the 10th Circuit scolded the state for its actions.
     “A system of law that places any value on finality – as any system of law worth its salt must – cannot allow intransigent litigants to challenge settled decisions year after year, decade after decade, until they wear everyone else out,” Gorsuch wrote for the three-member panel. “Even – or perhaps especially – when those intransigent litigants turn out to be public officials, for surely those charged with enforcing the law should know this much already.”
     The appeals court added that the state and counties’ counterclaims were “often inventive.”
     “By now the point is plain,” Gorsuch wrote. “The state and counties haven’t identified a clear and unequivocal waiver of sovereign immunity and none of their – often inventive – arguments can substitute for one.”
     The Ute Tribe called the decision a “complete and unequivocal victory” and “emphatic vindication of the Tribe’s sovereignty.”
     “The Ute Tribe is hopeful that the state and counties will heed this warning and follow the 10th Circuit mandates and opinion issued today,” Chairman Shaun Chapoose said.
     The protracted litigation, Chapoose added, took a heavy financial toll on the tribe.
     “The Ute Indian Tribe had to do it alone without the help of its trustee [the federal government] in defending its sovereign authority to exercise governmental authority over its land and it people within its reservation boundaries,” Chapoose said. “We are proud we were able to secure this great victory on our own.”
     Uintah County Attorney Mark Thomas could not be reached for comment.

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