The seal of the Ute Tribe of Utah is seen on a gymnasium on the reservation. Photo from Facebook

Ute Tribe wins major ruling in long-running dispute with state

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals rebuked state and local authorities in Utah on Tuesday for repeatedly challenging the sovereignty of the Ute Tribe.

The tribe has been locked in a 40-year battle to protect the boundaries of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. State and local authorities contend that certain areas of the reservation have been diminished and have been prosecuting tribal members for crimes in these areas.

The dispute has resulted in at least six major rulings in the federal court system and one in state court. Every ruling except one has confirmed that the reservation has not been diminished to the extent claimed by the state.

Despite those victories, the state and three counties continue to dispute the tribe and its land base. The unanimous ruling from the 10th Circuit made clear that the state parties must stop trying to "relitigate" the boundary dispute.

"Indeed, the harm to tribal sovereignty in this case is perhaps as serious as any to come our way in a long time," Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority.

The 10th Circuit directed a lower court to enter a preliminary injunction on favor of the tribe regarding the prosecution of a tribal member in Wasatch County. Lesa Ann Jenkins was charged for alleged traffic offenses on a state road within the uncontested part of the reservation.

"Not only is the prosecution of Ms. Jenkins itself an infringement on tribal sovereignty, but the tortured litigation history that supplies its backdrop strongly suggests it is part of a renewed campaign to undo the tribal boundaries settled by Ute III and V," Gorsuch wrote, referring to two earlier rulings that the court said should have settled the boundary dispute.

On a second issue, the 10th Circuit ruled that the tribe's officials cannot be sued by the state and two counties. The court held that the tribe has not waived its immunity nor has it been waived by an act of Congress.

"By now the point is plain," the decision stated. "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 tribe is entitled to dismissal of the counterclaims."

On the other hand, the court said Uintah County cannot assert sovereign immunity from the tribe's claims. None of the other counties, or the state, had made that argument.

Turtle Talk has posted documents from the case, Ute Tribe v. Utah.

Get the Story:
Appeals court halts state prosecutions of Utes for crimes on tribal land (The Salt Lake Tribune 6/17)
Appellate court judges blast Utah, 3 counties in tribal jurisdiction case (The Deseret News 6/17)
10th Circuit Court says Utah counties can’t prosecute people for crimes on tribal lands (Fox 13 6/16)

10th Circuit Decision:
Ute Tribe v. Utah (June 16, 2015)

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