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