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Ute dispute has cost counties $1.6 million

The Ute reservation boundary dispute. Indian jurisdiction litigation. The Hagen case. Ute Indian Tribe vs. Utah. Duchesne and Uintah counties vs. the Ute Indian Tribe.

Whatever you call it, 21 years of courtroom conflict over the original boundaries of the Uintah Valley Reservation have meant contention, uncertainty and headaches for both Indian and non-Indian governments and residents.For one South Dakota law firm, however, all the arguing has added up to about $1.4 million in business.

Records obtained from Duchesne County show that from 1977 through 1997, a total of $791,578 was paid to attorneys representing the county in various courts of law and for printing costs. The majority of the money went to Indian law expert Tom Tobin, a South Dakota attorney who was retained by Duchesne County in 1977, about two years after the Ute Indian Tribe and Duchesne and Uintah counties began meeting in the courtroom to argue over whether the original boundaries of the Uintah Valley Reservation are still in place or were dissolved by Congress in the early 1900s.

Uintah County has also paid to have Tobin prepare briefs and argue that the Uintah Valley Reservation was dissolved when Congress opened the reservation to homesteaders in the early 19th century. Records show that from 1984 through last month, Uintah County has paid $783,295 in jurisdiction legal fees. Again, the majority of the money was paid to Tobin's law firm.

In the last five months of 1997, Duchesne County paid Tobin $68,634. The county still owes a hefty bill that came in January.

Uintah County shelled out $49,576 for legal fees to Tobin along with printing costs for court documents starting with the last five months of 1997. Uintah County commissioners recently approved another payment of $9,432 for a bill that came last month, according to county budget manager Mike Wilkins.

When the two counties decided to file a writ of certiorari in mid-1997 in an attempt to get the U.S. Supreme Court to rehear the reservation boundary case, they were reportedly told by Tobin that it would cost $50,000 to prepare the case. Each county agreed to split the cost down the middle, but later found out such complex legal matters would cost them even more, said Duchesne County Commissioner John Swasey.

"We paid him to write two different briefs for about $5,000 apiece. The time you take that and the original amount and printing costs, it adds up," Swasey said, adding that the county doesn't want to pay Tobin any more.

"If they (the U.S. Supreme Court) deny cert, then we're done."

The Ute Tribe has also spent a lot of money on jurisdiction legal fees, but those figures are not available.