A federal judge on Monday rejected the Ute Indian Tribe’s "emergency" request for a preliminary injunction that would have blocked prosecutions of several tribal members charged in state court with offenses that allegedly occurred on tribal lands.
The tribe argued it faces "irreparable harm" if the state prosecutes them before U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins has a chance to rule on the merits of its jurisdictional dispute with Uintah and Duchesne counties. At issue is where exactly does tribal jurisdiction end and state jurisdiction begin in the "checkerboard" pattern of tribal trust lands in the Uinta Basin.
But the state has agreed to stay the criminal cases in question pending the outcome of this latest dispute, the judge found. The tribe was not satisfied and wanted assurances that the state would refrain from bringing new cases against its members.
"They are only willing to stay the existing cases. There are several thousand members. We don’t want this issue of the tribe’s boundaries litigated in state court without our knowledge. [When new cases are filed] they should be required to bring it to our attention," argued the tribe’s lawyer Frances Bassett.
But Jenkins didn’t hear her out.
"The tribal members ought to bring it to your attention," he interjected. "It seems to me at this point I don’t have an imminent danger [of harm to the tribe]."
At least 18 lawyers were assembled most of the day in Jenkins’ courtroom, all of them there on the taxpayers’ dime. The tribe’s request for injunctive relief came against the backdrop of a long-running fight that Jenkins plans to revisit next year after the two camps investigate their latest claims and counterclaims.
He was clearly impatient with the lawyers’ failure to agree on the issues to be resolved before coming to court. After the morning session, he invited them to sit down together in his jury room to identify the facts in dispute.
The way the tribe sees it, state and county authorities are violating appellate rulings, a 2000 court order and subsequent agreements that resolved the jurisdictional dispute, which dates back to 1975, by arresting and prosecuting tribal members in "Indian Country."
"They are using [criminal cases] to challenge the tribe’s reservation boundaries and make the tribe lose benefits gained in earlier decisions," Bassett said. "They are coming back to steal another portion of the tribe’s reservation."
The state, counties and some of the basin’s cities say the tribe is violating these agreements by asserting what amounts to "exclusive" jurisdiction over lands in the historic Uintah Valley and Uncompahgre reservations — which cover most of the Uinta Basin.
Over the past century, tribal trust lands have shrunk to the patchwork today known as the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation, making it all but impossible for state troopers and sheriff’s deputies to know whether they are making arrests on or off the reservation, lawyers argued.
"There 6,500 miles of roads on 2.8 million acres where there are no signs saying you are entering and leaving tribal lands. There are high-speed chases that cross these lines. Is the defendant off the hook because they crossed trust lands?" said Jesse Trentadue, representing Duchesne County.
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