The seal of the Ute Tribe of Utah is seen on a gymnasium on the reservation. Photo from Ute Tribe Recreation

Ute Tribe prevails in reservation boundary dispute yet another time

The Ute Tribe won another victory in a long-running sovereignty case on Tuesday as a federal appeals court rebuked officials in Utah for keeping the dispute alive.

In a unanimous decision, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals once again confirmed the boundaries of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. And by again, a three-judge panel noted that the tribe has basically won the case seven times in the last 40 years.

"Over the last forty years the questions haven’t changed — and neither have our answers. We just keep rolling the rock," Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote in the 18-page ruling.

Gorsuch pointed out that the 10th Circuit, barely a year ago, chastised officials in Utah for trying to "relitigate" the boundaries of the reservation. But rather than accept the decision, the state parties asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.

The justices denied the petition in Wasatch County, Utah v. Ute Indian Tribe on March 21. While they didn't offer a written explanation, their action spoke volumes when they issued a unanimous decision in Nebraska v. Parker, another sovereignty dispute, a day later and affirmed the boundaries of the reservation of the Omaha Tribe in Nebraska.

But officials in Utah apparently didn't see the writing on the wall. This time it was the town of Myton, whose officials have been prosecuting tribal members for crimes committed in an area of the reservation that has been repeatedly confirmed as Indian Country.

"Indeed, the tribe has won two separate judgments (Ute III and V) holding (first) that all and (then) that some of Myton is inside Indian Country," Gorsuch wrote, referring to two of the seven major decisions in the dispute.

But Gorsuch wasn't done with the rebuke. Acting at the tribe's request, the 10th Circuit agreed to reassign all of the boundary dispute cases to a different judge in hopes of preventing state officials from trying to muddy up the waters again.

"The unavoidable fact is that nearly twenty years ago in Ute V this court explained that, between Ute III and its own disposition, 'all boundary questions at issue' had been finally resolved," Gorsuch wrote. "Even so, the years since seem to have brought nothing but relitigation of those boundaries."

Reservation boundary disputes are notably fact intensive and complex, as the Supreme Court pointed out in Nebraska v. Parker. Judges must look at treaties, history, federal laws and other factors to determine whether a reservation has been diminished. In many instances, the analysis goes back to the 1800s.

But the Utah case seems to stand out as unusual. Even though the tribe has been trying prevent their people from being wrongly prosecuted since 1975, local officials have continued to do so up until very recently, in apparent defiance of the 10th Circuit's rulings.

Turtle Talk has posted documents from the case, Ute Tribe v. Myton.

10th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Ute Tribe v. Myton (August 9, 2016)

Earlier 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Ute Tribe v. Utah (June 16, 2015)

U.S. Supreme Court Decision:
Nebraska v. Parker (March 22, 2016)

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