On March 22 the U. S. Supreme Court denied certiorari review in Ute Tribe v. Utah, a case involving jurisdictional boundaries in prosecuting tribal members in state courts that has been in litigation for over two decades. In refusing to review the case, the court has reaffirmed three lower court rulings made by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, all of which held that the tribe’s Uintah and Ouray (“U&O”) Reservation included both the lands of the Uncompahgre Reservation and the national forest lands located within the tribe’s original reservation boundaries.
The current litigation stems from two federal lawsuits filed by the tribe in April 2013, seeking to enjoin the State of Utah and its counties from prosecuting tribal members through Utah state courts for alleged violations of Utah state law committed by Indians within the boundaries of the tribe’s reservation. The Ute Tribe maintained that Utah and its counties are using state prosecutions as an “end-run around” to the previous rulings, essentially ignoring the federal court rulings, according to the tribe’s attorneys.
In 2015, the Tenth Circuit conveyed its irritation with the challenges to the previous rulings, writing that for any legal system to be functional, parties to a legal dispute “must accept –or, if need be, they must be made to respect” settled legal rulings. “…[This] case was resolved nearly twenty years ago, the Supreme Court declined to disturb its judgment, and the time has long since come for the parties to accept it.” Further, the judges wrote, Utah had failed to identify “any legitimate state interest advanced by its attempt to re-litigate Indian reservation boundary decisions by prosecuting Indians for crimes in Indian country.”
In denying the petition for review, the Supreme Court leaves in place the Tenth Circuit’s decisions in Ute III, Ute V, and Ute VI which hold and reaffirm that the National Forest Lands and Uncompahgre Reservation remain a part of the U&O Reservation.
“The Supreme Court’s decision serves to bring an end to the ongoing efforts of the counties to challenge our homeland and our jurisdictional authority in federal court,” the Ute Tribe said in its press release. “This litigation has been very expensive not only for the Ute Tribe, but for the State of Utah, and its counties, and its residents. The time has come for the State of Utah, its counties and cities to accept the rulings in Ute III, Ute V and now Ute VI (the Tenth Circuit’s ruling in June, 2015), and to move forward. The Tribe’s Business Committee remains committed to meeting with State and county officials to work cooperatively towards resolving State and Tribal jurisdictional issues that must still be resolved separate and apart from the court rulings in this case.”
The tribe is represented by the law firm of Fredericks Peebles & Morgan and the law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, who served as counsel of record for the Ute Tribe before the Supreme Court.