Todd Rory Murray, 1986-2007. Family photo
Law | National

Ute Tribe hails decision requiring non-Indian officers to return to court on reservation

Thanks to a new court ruling, the Ute Tribe is finally hoping to secure some justice for the death of one of its young citizens.

Todd Rory Murray was only 21 years old when he died in April 2007. He was shot in the head during an incident with non-Indian officers who pursued him onto tribal land even though they lacked authority to enforce laws on the reservation.

According to a medical examiner, Murray killed himself but his family believes he was murdered by one of those officers, who admitted shooting his gun during the encounter. Attempts to get to the bottom of the dispute, however, have hit an impasse.

That might be changing with a unanimous decision from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. A panel of three judges on Tuesday said the officers who were involved must respond to a trespass claim in the tribe's judicial system.

Generally, non-Indians are not subject to tribal jurisdiction. But the court said the officers' actions more than a decade ago, which included entering the reservation without consent and barring a tribal officer from examining the scene of Murray's death, conceivably represent a threat to the tribe's sovereignty.

"Thus, in addition to impinging upon a 'hallmark of Indian sovereignty' by trespassing, the officers colorably threatened the 'political integrity' of the tribe by improperly asserting their own authority as superior to that of a tribal official on tribal lands," Judge Carlos F. Lucero wrote in the 25-page ruling.

Vance Norton was a police officer for the city of Vernal, Utah, when he admitted firing his gun at Todd Rory Murray on April 1, 2017. He now serves as the sheriff in Uintah County. Photo: Uintah County Sheriff- Vance Norton

Lucero was quick to point out that the decision does not mean the tribe can exercise jurisdiction over the officers -- only that the officers must "exhaust" their remedies on the reservation first. But Ute leaders are taking it as a positive sign that their trespass law is enforceable against non-Indians.

"The Tenth Circuit decision provides a significant victory for the Ute Indian Tribe in strengthening the jurisdiction of the Ute Indian Tribal Court to hear and resolve claims involving non-members and affirming the civil regulatory authority of the Ute Indian Tribe to enforce its tribal trespass ordinance," the tribe said in a statement on Wednesday.

The ruling in fact represents the narrowing of one of the most controversial Indian law decisions to come out of the U.S. Supreme Court. In Nevada v. Hicks, the late justice Antonin Scalia drew widespread scorn when he famously wrote: "State sovereignty does not end at a reservation’s border."

But with Tuesday's ruling, the 10th Circuit has joined the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in holding that non-Indians and non-Indian entities cannot rely on Hicks to evade accountability on reservations. Together, the courts cover more than 300 tribes in Western states, blunting the impact of Scalia's views.

Still, the Ute Tribe and Murray's family face some major obstacles in their attempt to hold the officers accountable. The one who admitted shooting his pistol during the incident is Vance Norton, who now serves as the elected sheriff in Uintah County. And a key piece of evidence -- the gun Murray allegedly used on himself -- was destroyed in 2008, KSL-TV reported.

"I am pleased that the Court of Appeals has sent this matter back to the tribe’s court, where it should be; that it rejected Norton’s claim that because he is a state officer, he does not have to answer for his on-reservation action," Murray's mother, Debra Jones, said in the the tribe's statement. "I look forward to finally having my day in court in front of a fair and neutral tribal court judge."

The seal of the Ute Tribe is seen on a gymnasium on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah. Photo: Ute Tribe Recreation

The tribe has been battling the county, along with other local and state officials, for decades over law enforcement and jurisdiction issues on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. The 10th Circuit has repeatedly ruled that the reservation has not been diminished yet litigation continued because Utah refused to give up.

"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 last August before he joined the Supreme Court as a nominee of Republican President Donald Trump. The tribe was a vocal supporter of Gorsuch during the confirmation process this spring.

Despite the rocky relationship in Utah, there are indications that it may be improving. The tribe, the state and the counties have been in mediation in hopes of resolving some of their long-standing issues.

As a result, the city of Myton has withdrawn its appeal of the decision written by now-Justice Gorsuch. The state of Utah was supporting the appeal but the petition in Myton v. Ute Indian Tribe, was officially dismissed by the Supreme Court on July 3, according to Docket No. 16-868.

"We view this as an act of good faith on their part to recognize the tribe’s continuing commitment to serve as a good neighbor and work to promote the safety and interests of all of the citizens of the Uintah Basin," Ute leaders said in a statement.

Turtle Talk has posted documents from the police officer case, Norton v. Ute Indian Tribe.

10th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Norton v. Ute Indian Tribe (July 11, 2017)

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