Ute Indian Tribe v. Utah, No. 14-4028 (10th Cir. 2015)Annotate this Case
Nearly forty years ago the Ute Tribe filed a lawsuit alleging that Utah and several local governments were unlawfully trying to displace tribal authority on tribal lands. After a decade of proceedings at the district court and on appeal, the Tenth Circuit agreed to hear the case en banc. In the decision that followed, "Ute III," the court ruled for the Tribe and rejected Utah's claim that congressional action had diminished three constituent parts of Ute tribal lands (the Uncompahgre Reservation, the Uintah Valley Reservation, and certain national forest areas. When the Supreme Court denied certiorari, that "should have been the end of the matter." State officials chose "to disregard the binding effect of the Tenth Circuit decision in order to attempt to relitigate the boundary dispute in a friendlier forum" by continuing to prosecute tribal members in state court for conduct within the boundaries recognized by Ute III. Utah argued to the Utah Supreme Court that Ute III did not diminish tribal territory did diminish at least a part of the Uintah Valley Reservation. The Court agreed, as did the U.S. Supreme Court (despite having denied certiorari to "Ute III"). The issue of what to do with the mandate of "Ute III" remained: keeping it in place could leave the United States Supreme Court's decision in Hagen to control only cases arising from Utah state courts and not federal district courts. In "Ute V," the Tenth Circuit elected to recall and modify Ute III's mandate. On appeal, Utah sought to diminish parts of the national forest and Uncompahgre lands. "Ute V" rejected this request. The Tribe filed suit in federal court, seeking a permanent injunction prohibiting the State and its counties from pursuing criminal prosecutions of Indians in state court for offenses arising in areas declared by Ute III and V to be Indian country, and prohibiting the State and its subdivisions from otherwise relitigating matters settled by those decisions. Before the Tenth Circuit in this matter were three interlocutory (but immediately appealable) collateral orders this latest litigation has spawned: (1) the Tribe's request for a preliminary injunction; (2) the Tribe's claim of immunity from the counterclaims; and (3) Uintah County's claim of immunity from the Tribe's suit. In all three decisions the district court denied the requested relief. But the Tenth Circuit found Tribe's arguments on all three points as "well taken." The district court should have issued a preliminary injunction; the Tribe was shielded by sovereign immunity; and Uintah County was not.