Char-Koosta News

The Official Publication of the Flathead Nation online

June 23, 2011

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals finds for Indian Tribes in case central to tribal sovereignty

Sweeping ruling in Water Wheel Camp Recreation Area, Inc. vs. LaRance firmly supports the rights of tribes to adjudicate civil disputes with non-tribal members on tribal land

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — On Friday, June 10th, the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals released its ruling in Water Wheel Camp Recreation Area, Inc. vs. LaRance. The main issue in the case was whether an Indian tribe could bring suit in its own courts to evict a trespasser who is not a member of the tribe but who had operated a business on tribal land pursuant to a lease with the tribe for decades. The Court found that the Tribal Court of the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) acted appropriately when adjudicating the case. As a result, the former tenants must adhere to the Tribal Court’s ruling.

“The Ninth Circuit supported critical rights central to the sovereignty of Indian Tribes throughout the United States when it ruled on this case,” said attorney Winter King of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP, who submitted an amicus curiae brief on behalf of CRIT, the plaintiff in the original Tribal Court case. “If there were ever a case in which tribal courts should have jurisdiction over non-member defendants, this was it. The defendants in this case were on the Tribe’s land without permission and without paying rent for years, and now they have been held accountable for their actions.”

Some Indian tribes in the United States have their own courts through which they adjudicate civil disputes among tribal members as well as non-members. The Ninth Circuit found that CRIT had the inherent sovereign power to exclude individuals from its Reservation and that, as a result, CRIT’s Tribal Court had jurisdiction to adjudicate the Tribe’s eviction action against both the Water Wheel Camp Recreation Area and its owner, Robert Johnson. Accordingly, Mr. Johnson and Water Wheel must both adhere to the Tribal Court’s ruling in the case in full.

Water Wheel v. LaRance involved a Tribal Court’s review of a classic landlord-tenant dispute. In 1975, Water Wheel, a California corporation, leased land from the Colorado River Indian Tribes to develop and operate a resort. Mr. Johnson purchased the company in the 1980s and developed and operated the resort on the Tribe’s land pursuant to the lease for more than 25 years. In 2007, the lease expired and the Tribe asked Mr. Johnson to leave, but Mr. Johnson refused.

When CRIT brought the dispute before its Tribal Court for resolution, the Tribal Court found in favor of the Tribe. In support of its claim that the Tribal Court had jurisdiction over Johnson, CRIT presented evidence that Johnson had developed and operated a resort on tribal land leased from CRIT, he met regularly with representatives of the Tribe, and he followed the Tribe’s guidance regarding development of the resort. His refusal to pay rent or vacate the property also threatened the economic security of the CRIT. Despite this evidence, Mr. Johnson refused to abide by the Court’s decision, insisting that the Tribal Court did not have jurisdiction over the matter.

“The Ninth Circuit’s thorough and well-reasoned decision stands for the proposition that an Indian Tribe can use its own courts to evict trespassers on tribal land, no matter who those trespassers are. I think many people would be surprised to learn that was ever a question,” continued Ms. King. “This victory also adds to the legacy of attorney Tim Vollman, who passed away unexpectedly in December after filing several very persuasive briefs on behalf of the Tribal Court parties in this case.”

The Ninth Circuit agreed with the Federal District Court’s finding that the Tribal Court had jurisdiction over Water Wheel, Mr. Johnson’s company, and reversed the District Court’s finding that Mr. Johnson could not be sued in Tribal Court for his unlawful occupation of tribal land. The Ninth Circuit remanded the case to the District Court to enter a judgment upholding the tribal court’s jurisdiction over both Water Wheel and Johnson.

About Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP
Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP is a San Francisco-based law firm specializing in government, land use, natural resource and environmental law. Since 1980, the firm has provided public agencies and community groups throughout California with the highest quality legal representation, offering an array of litigation, counseling and planning services. Attorney Winter King practices Indian law and has represented Tribes and their interests in cases before United States Federal District and Appellate Courts.

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