A welcome sign on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in Parker, Arizona. Photo: moominsean

Supreme Court puts end to case challenging Colorado River Indian Tribes lease

It looks like a long-running lease dispute between the Colorado River Indian Tribes and a non-Indian tenant is finally over.

Without comment, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a petition in French v. Starr. The action, which came in an order list on Tuesday, clears the way for Roger French to be evicted from the reservation.

French, who is part of a group called the West Bank Homeowners Association, entered into a lease with the tribe in 1983. The permit required him to submit to the tribe's judicial system whenever disputes, such as evictions, arise.

French tried to get out of the arrangement by claiming the lot he was leasing was not part of the reservation. But the federal courts ruled that he was prevented from raising that issue because he paid rent without question for the first 10 years.

"Both the permit and the assignment of that permit to French described the lot in question as within the Colorado River Indian Reservation," the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in a short memorandum in June. "French paid rent pursuant to the permit, first to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the benefit of CRIT and then directly to CRIT, from 1983 through 1993."

"French is therefore estopped from contesting CRIT’s title," the court concluded, citing a legal doctrine that bars French from making a claim that contradicts his prior acceptance of the lot as falling within reservation boundaries.

French hasn't paid rent since 1993 so the tribe started eviction proceedings in its judicial system. Before he could be removed, he filed a lawsuit in federal court, naming the tribe's judge and other tribal judicial officials as defendants.

Like other non-Indians on the reservation, French hoped he could convince the court to declare that certain lands on the California side of the Colorado River are not part of the reservation. The state's former attorney general Kamala Harris, who is now serving in the U.S. Senate, even submitted a brief in support of that claim.

But the judge who heard the lawsuit said French was estopped from raising the boundary issue based on the conditions he accepted in the original lease. For that reason, the court refused to accept the brief submitted by Harris.

President Abraham Lincoln signed an executive order on March 3, 1865 that set aside a homeland for the Mohave people along the Colorado River in Arizona and California. Subsequent actions brought the Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo peoples to the reservation, resulting in the unique community seen today.

Over the years, the shifting course of the Colorado River has led to disputes with non-Indians over the boundaries of the reservation. The tribe and the federal government have consistently prevailed in litigation although some holdouts continue to believe the matter hasn't been settled.

"We are hopeful that SCOTUS will hear the case to prevent further harm to West Bank residents, reestablish our constitutional rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments, and bring an end to the legal abomination that exists on the west bank of the Colorado River," French's association wrote on its website after the petition was filed.

In a similar case, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in April upheld the termination of a lease on the reservation after the non-Indian tenant stopped paying rent to the tribe even as he entered his 90s. He died before the disputed was fully resolved.

9th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
French v. Starr (June 1, 2017)

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