DENVER — In an opinion issued Tuesday, three members of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals blasted the state of Utah and a trio of counties for trying to relitigate federal court rulings handed during a 40-year-old legal fight with the Ute Indian Tribe over jurisdiction.
"Sooner or later every case must come to an end," Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote in the court's 27-page opinion. "After all, that’s why people bring their disputes to court in the first place: because the legal system promises to resolve their differences without resort to violence and supply 'peace and repose.'
"For a legal system to meet this promise, of course, both sides must accept — or, if need be, they must be made to respect — the judgments it generates," the judge continued. "Most people know and readily assent to all this. So it’s pretty surprising when a state and several of its counties need a reminder."
Gorsuch wrote that recent state court prosecutions of tribal members for offenses committed on legally established tribal lands "strongly suggest" county officials in eastern Utah are involved in "a renewed campaign to undo the tribal boundaries settled" in the 1990s by the Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Indeed, the harm to tribal sovereignty in this case is perhaps as serious as any to come our way in a long time," Gorsuch wrote, referring to the prosecution of Lesa Jenkins, which the judge called "a test case."
Jenkins, an enrolled tribal member, was pulled over in July 2012 by a Utah Highway Patrol trooper on state Route 35 in an area that is federally designated as Indian Country, Gorsuch wrote. State court records show that Wasatch County prosecutors subsequently charged her with a number of traffic offenses including being an interlock-restricted driver operating a vehicle without an ignition interlock system.
Nine months after Jenkins' arrest, attorneys for the Ute Tribe filed an 11-page federal lawsuit filled with allegations of racial profiling, police harassment and illegal prosecutions of tribal members in Duchesne and Uintah counties.
At the same time, the tribe also asked U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins to reopen a case filed against the state and the counties in 1975. Jenkins agreed to reinstate the case, which he had dismissed in 2000 after the parties signed three 10-year contracts that appeared to resolve their jurisdictional disagreements.
The controversy stemmed from a long-running dispute over who has criminal and regulatory jurisdiction over tribal members in parts of eastern Utah, and whether Congress ever "diminished or disestablished" the Uncompahgre Indian Reservation, which is part of the larger Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation.
Tribal leaders cite a 1997 ruling by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, known as Ute V, in arguing that state and local authorities regularly violate tribal members' rights — and federal law — by arresting them on reservation land and then prosecuting them.
Uintah County Attorney G. Mark Thomas, however, has said he considers the Ute V decision "ill-reasoned." He argues that state and local police officers have jurisdiction to arrest tribal members under a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Hagen v. Utah.
In Jenkins' case, attorneys for the tribe argued that the trooper didn't have the authority to arrest her because of her tribal status and because the stop happened on a section of S.R. 35 that is inside the historic boundaries of the Uintah Valley Reservation.
A federal judge refused to issue an injunction to temporarily halt Wasatch County's case against Jenkins, leading the tribe to file its appeal with the 10th Circuit Court. The appellate court was also asked to rule on claims of sovereign immunity made by the tribe and Uintah County that had also been rejected by a separate federal judge.
On Tuesday, the appellate court sided with the tribe in all three matters — ordering a federal judge to put Wasatch County's prosecution of Jenkins on hold; ruling that the tribe cannot be sued by Uintah County in the larger jurisdiction case; and holding that Uintah County is not immune from the tribe's civil claims.
Gorsuch and his fellow judges, however, denied the tribe's request for sanctions against Uintah County.
"Though we see some merit in the tribe's motion for sanctions against Uintah County, given the highly doubtful grounds of some of its arguments to this court, we hope this opinion will send the same message: that the time has come to respect the peace and repose promised by settled decisions," Gorsuch wrote.
"In the event our hope proves misplaced and (the state and counties) persist in failing to respect the rulings of Ute V, they may expect to meet with sanctions in the district court or in this one," the judge added.
Attorneys for the state and counties said Tuesday they are reviewing the opinion and will decide at a later date whether to ask for a review by the full 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
"This is not an issue of taking anything away from the tribe," said Jesse Trentadue, an attorney who represents Duchesne and Wasatch counties. "It's about public safety. If the counties and the state can't enforce the laws on state highways when tribal members are involved, who will?"
Shaun Chapoose, chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe, said the tribe is willing to work cooperatively toward resolving the jurisdiction issue with the state and the counties "on a government-to-government basis, and only in an environment of mutual respect by all parties."
"Now that the 10th Circuit has spoken," Chapoose said, "it is our hope that the law is clear with respect to the tribe’s authority, and we hope the spirit of the law can be carried out in future negotiations with our state and county counterparts.”