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Supreme Court Roundup
The 2000-2001 Term

JUNE 19, 2001

The Supreme Court is set to adjourn this month, having decided on a number of Indian law cases.

By any number of accounts, the rulings handed down haven't been kind to Indian Country. Tribes who prevailed in lower courts have found their positions reversed by Justices whose predecessors were seen as protectors of Indian rights.

Even though it was a close call, yesterday's ruling in favor of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe might have shed some hope, though. "Tribes have had a hard time in the United States Supreme Court in recent years," said Ray Givens, a lawyer for the tribe.

"This is a good decision for all of Indian Country in showing that tribes can still prevail," he added.

With two cases left on the docket, final judgment on the October 2000-2001 term has yet to be rendered. Here's a roundup of the cases the Supreme Court has decided so far, their immediate effect, and the prospects for the future.

The Trust Relationship
In a unanimous decision, the Court in January ruled that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) does not exempt communications between tribes and the federal government, even when the documents arise out of the unique trust relationship between the two.

The practical effect is that the Department of interior has to turn over seven documents regarding the water rights of tribes in Oregon and northern California. In the long run, the government is considering ways to protect future communications with tribes.

Get the Story:
Supreme Court delivers blow to tribes (3/06)

Sovereign Immunity
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court in April ruled that the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma waived its sovereign immunity when it entered into a contract that contained a binding arbitration clause.

The practical effect means that the tribe will return to state court and will most likely pay for breaking a construction contract. As for the big picture, the Court didn't change the nature of tribal sovereign immunity but tribal attorney Michael Minnis says that "any tribe that enters into a contract better make sure" to read the fine print.

Get the Story:
Supreme Court rules against tribe's immunity (5/1)

In another unanimous decision, the Supreme Court in May ruled that the Navajo Nation cannot collect a hotel tax from non-Indian businesses located on non-Indian owned land located within its reservation.

Coupled with a ruling affecting the Crow Tribe, the decision is affecting to hinder tribal attempts to make revenue. Already a federal court in Montana has struck down a tax enacted by the Fort Peck Tribes.

In the long run, the tribe is looking to Congress to devise a solution to allow its tax to be collected on any business, regardless of ethnic identity.

Get the Story:
Supreme Court strikes down Navajo tax (5/30)

States' Rights
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court in June ruled that the state of Idaho can't claim ownership to submerged lands within a lake and river because the United States reserved them for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe.

The immediate effect is minimal since the tribe has been managing its portion of the lake since 1998. Chairman Ernie Stensgar, however, tells the Spokesman Review that the tribe may consider seeking ownership of the entire lake.

The tribe's attempts to force clean up of the entire basin are effectively bolstered by the win, as well. The tribe is seeking private companies to clean up pollution left from mining dating back more than one hundred years.

Get the Story:
Coeur d'Alene Tribe wins lake ownership case (6/19)

On the Docket
Still left for review are two cases. One will decide if state officials can be sued in tribal court while the other will determine if tribes are exempt from paying certain federal taxes, a privilege already afforded to states.

Get the Story:
Supreme Court set to rule on tribal court challenge (5/29)
Supreme Court accepts taxation case (01/23)

Only on Indianz.Com
Supreme Court: The 2000-2001 Term (3/6)

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