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Supreme Court adds fight over Colorado River water rights to its docket

In the drought-prone West, a tribal nation claims the government should have protected its access to water. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court agreed Friday to wade into its second battle over water rights of the term, this time involving the Navajo Nation. 

The tribe is suing the Biden administration and three states over the right to access water from the Colorado River. Running through multiple states in the drought-prone west, water in the Colorado River has long been at the center of legal fights. 

“The dispute here between the Navajo Nation and the federal government concerns the federal government’s duty to assess the Nation’s water needs and develop a plan to meet them,” Shay Dvoretzky, an attorney with Meagher & Flom representing the tribe, wrote in a brief.

During a suit between Arizona and California over water rights in the lower half of the river basin, the government leaned on a 1908 case that says the establishment of Indian or federal reservations required entitlement to water rights. The government claimed water rights in the lower basin on behalf of 25 reservations, including the Navajo, but it claimed water rights only for five reservations in the Colorado River mainstream. 

In 2003 the Navajo Nation sued the government, claiming that failing to assert their water rights over the mainstream violated its trust obligations to the tribe and the National Environmental Policy Act. Arizona, Nevada and Colorado joined the suit — which was stayed for a decade for settlement negotiations. 

Though the district court dismissed the case on behalf of the government in 2013, the Ninth Circuit revived the case in a partial reversal, finding the Navajo Nation had a breach-of-trust claim. 

The Navajo Nation attempted to amend its suit on remand but the district court dismissed the case. Again, the Ninth Circuit would rescue the case and reverse the lower court ruling. The government and the states then appealed to the high court, asking the justices if the federal government had a duty to assess the Navajo Nation’s need for water from the river. 

The government claims it can’t be sued for violating a trust to which the tribe can’t point directly. 

“In a series of decisions, this Court has made clear that an Indian tribe cannot sue to enforce an asserted trust obligation against the United States unless the tribe can ‘identify a specific, applicable, trust-creating statute or regulation that the Government violated,’” U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote.  

The water rights battle was not the only addition to this term’s docket, the justices also added cases involving trademark and patent law. 

Amgen brought a fight over patents for monoclonal antibodies to the court. The company sued Sanofi and Regeneron for patent infringement. Sanofi-Regeneron claims Amgen’s patents weren’t valid based on a section of the Patent Act relating to the written description of the patent. Amgen is asking the court to clarify the process for satisfying these requirements. 

In another case granted a writ of certiorari on Friday, the justices agreed to hear a trademark case involving radio remote controls used to operate heavy equipment like cranes. Reviewing a 10th Circuit ruling that will cost German and Austrian business owners $90 million in damages based on a U.S. law that provides civil remedies for the infringement of U.S. trademarks. 

Per their custom, the Supreme Court did not issue any comment on its afternoon order list.

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