Printer friendly version
Supreme Court hears lake ownership case today
APRIL 23, 2001

The Supreme Court today hears oral arguments in another case affecting Indian Country and will end up deciding who is the rightful owner of the southern third of Lake Coeur d'Alene: the state of Idaho or the United States, in trust for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe.

Two courts have so far sided on behalf of the tribe, but only after the United States entered the dispute. The Supreme Court in 1997 rejected the tribe's claim, upholding Idaho's sovereign immunity from lawsuit.

This time, states' rights are still at the center of the dispute. Relying on another 1997 Supreme Court case involving Alaska, Attorney General Al Lance argues Idaho's entrance to the Union in 1890 secured its rights to submerged waters, including the lake.

The US and the tribe argue executive orders and Congressional actions clearly establish the tribe's right to the lake, considered a key part of tribal culture. Press secretary Bob Bostwick also says the tribe believes the state hasn't done a good job at protecting the lake for the past one hundred years.

"Its an environmental issue," said Bostwick, recalling years of pollution by the mining industry in the region. "The tribe is really committed to taking care of the lake and to provide the appropriate stewardship to ensure a healthy future."

While acknowledging the effects of mining, Attorney General spokesperson Bob Cooper played down the environmental concerns of the tribe. "The point is that the state has always owned the lake since statehood," said Cooper. "The lake is the state's resource to manage."

Given its earlier court successes, Bostwick said the tribe is optimistic about its chances. By accepting the case, he speculated the Supreme Court is interested in resolving an issue they couldn't touch in 1997, but said the conservative-liberal split could be troubling.

The Court's four liberal justices back then sided with the tribe. They were overruled by the conservative majority, including swing voter Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Nearly a dozen states have submitted friend of the court briefs on behalf of Idaho, arguing states have sovereign rights to all waters once granted statehood. Two Idaho counties also filed a brief in support.

The United States and the Coeur d'Alene Tribe each submitted their own briefs. Unlike other cases involving Indian Country, no tribes have filed briefs.

Oral Argument Transcript
Idaho v. United States (Supreme Court 4/23)

Briefs of Parties
Petitioner - State of Idaho
Respondent - United States
Respondent - Coeur d'Alene Tribe

Briefs Supporting Idaho
States of California, Alaska, Arkansas, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Vermont - Argues ownership of navigable waters was transferred to States upon entrance into the Union.
Counties of Benowah County, Kootenai County - Similar argument to States.

Briefs Supporting US / Coeur d'Alene Tribe

Related Decisions
US v. Idaho (Ninth Circuit. No. 9835831. May 2000)
Idaho, et al. v. Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Idaho, et al 521 U.S. 261 (1997)
Syllabus | Opinion | Concurrence | Dissent

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

Only on Indianz.Com
The Supreme Court and Indian Law: 2000-2001 (3/6)

Related Stories
Supreme Court to rule on lake ownership (12/13)
State wants Coeur d'Alene Lake (7/27)