Supreme Court to rule on lake ownership
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DECEMBER 13, 2000

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear the state of Idaho's challenge to the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's ownership of the southern third of Lake Coeur d'Alene.

Considered a prized natural resource, the lake draws millions of visitors every year for swimming, boating, and other activities. But while the state contends it has responsibly managed the lake for the past 100 years, the tribe has a different view.

"The state has provided nothing toward the stewardship of that lake over the years," said Bob Bostwick, the tribe's press secretary. "The state has allowed it to be used a toilet for mine waste."

"The tribe is the lake's last best hope," he added.

In what has been termed a "legal slam dunk," a federal judge in 1998 ruled that the tribe was the rightful owner of the southern portion of the lake, citing an 1873 executive order and subsequent Congressional actions. The state appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, who affirmed tribal ownership in May.

Since the first ruling, Bostwick said the tribe has taken steps to step up water safety, providing police and other services on its portion of the lake. The tribe has also continued to press the mining industry to finance the cleanup of the lake and the surrounding area and in July, three companies pledged $250 million over 30 years to clean up the Coeur d'Alene basin, where mining began in the late 1800s.

It was during this time that Idaho received statehood, a key part of the state's position. Arguing that the issue is important not just for Idaho, but to "all of the western states," Attorney General Al Lance says Idaho's entrance into the Union in 1890 confirms state ownership of the entire lake.

The state also disagrees with the view that they have not adequately cared for the lake.

"The state had managed it all along," said Bob Cooper, the Attorney General's director of constituent affairs. "This really is a legal difference between the state of Idaho, the United States, and the Coeur d'Alene Tribe "

The intervention of the United States was a key part in forcing the state to address their claims of ownership. The tribe had attempted to sue the state on its own but in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the Eleventh Amendment protected the state from lawsuit.

The Court's decision was split 5 to 4, with Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer arguing that the tribe had proven its case was an exception to the state's sovereign immunity. Whether or not the Court will again view this issue so divided is open for question, but Bostwick believes the tribe will prevail.

"The tribe's homeland has always been here," he said. "The lake has always been the center of that homeland."

Get the Ninth Circuit Ruling:
US v. Idaho (Ninth Circuit. No. 9835831. May 2000)

Get the 1997 Supreme Court Case:
Idaho, et al. v. Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Idaho, et al 521 U.S. 261 (1997)
Syllabus | Opinion | Concurrence | Dissent

Related Stories:
State wants Coeur d'Alene Lake (Tribal Law 07/27)
Coeur d'Alene settles lawsuit (Enviro 07/10)
Tribe slows down river (Tribal Law 05/05)

Relevant Links:
The Coeur d'Alene Tribe -
Attorney General, Idaho -