Coeur d'Alene Tribe wins lake ownership case
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JUNE 19, 2001

In a slim but resounding victory, the Supreme Court on Monday upheld the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's claim to the southern third of Lake Coeur d'Alene in Idaho.

"Its a big win for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and for Indian Country," said Ray Givens, a lawyer who represented the tribe.

The 5 to 4 decision, split along liberal-conservative lines, ends a seven-year dispute over ownership of the lake, considered a prized natural resource which draws millions of visitors to north-central Idaho every year. Although two lower courts have affirmed that the United States holds a portion of the lake in trust for the tribe, the state objected to tribal control over any part of it.

Yesterday, however, the state offered conciliatory tones on the heels of its repeated defeat. "Although we had hoped for a favorable decision, we must accept the decision of the Court," said Attorney General Al Lance.

"The Court's decision does not change the fact that the state of Idaho and the Coeur d'Alene Tribe share a common interest in proper management of one of Idaho's crown jewels, Lake Coeur d'Alene," he added.

For the tribe, the decision acknowledges ownership of an historically and culturally important lake and river. The tribe once held domain to over 3.5 million acres of land, whittled down over the years to make way for white settlement.

Yet the tribe had always sought to include the lake within its boundaries. So much so that President Ulysses Grant in 1873 issued an executive order to set aside a reservation including the lake.

Subsequent actions by Congress also recognized the lake as held in trust for the tribe. But by 1889, the tribe had been convinced to relinquish the northern two-thirds of the lake, selling it for $500,000.

Before Congress could ratify the agreement, however, Idaho officially became a state. Lance asserted Idaho's sovereignty over the entire lake based on the 1890 admission.

The Court narrowly ruled otherwise. Writing for the majority, Justice David Souter said the evidence proved Congress intended to keep the southern third for the tribe when it finally approved the 1889 sale.

"The manner in which Congress then proceeded to deal with the Tribe shows clearly that preservation of the reservation’s land," wrote Souter. "Idaho’s position is also at odds with later manifestations of congressional understanding."

Disagreeing was Chief Justice William Rehnquist, joined in a dissenting opinion by Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony Kennedy. Rehnquist argued that the majority wrongfully relied on Congress' actions following Idaho's admission into the Union to prove tribal ownership.

"The very moment that Idaho entered the Union 'on an equal footing with the original States,' Congress and the President vested in Idaho the accoutrements of sovereignty, including title to submerged lands," wrote Rehnquist. "It is therefore improper for the Court to look to events after Idaho’s admission."

The decision affects about 5,200 acres of the lake, which the tribe has been managing since winning at the federal court level in 1998. "The tribe has adopted statutes for regulating the lake," said Givens. "Those will continue to be implemented."

Christine Romano, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, declined to comment on the case. The United States filed the lawsuit on behalf of the tribe, who then later intervened.

Get the Decision Idaho v. United States (00-189):
Syllabus | Opinion | Dissent

History of Lake Case:
Lake ownership battle has raged since 1846 (The Spokesman Review 6/19)

Only on Indianz.Com:
Briefs, links, and more: Idaho v. United States (4/23)

Relevant Links:
The Coeur d'Alene Tribe -
Attorney General, Idaho -
The Supreme Court -

Related Stories:
Supreme Court to rule on lake ownership (12/13)
State wants Coeur d'Alene Lake (7/27)