SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge has refused to grant the Ute Indian Tribe's request for a preliminary injunction against the state of Utah, two counties and three cities in a lawsuit that was first filed nearly 40 years ago.
Judge Bruce Jenkins reached his decision Monday after Uintah County Attorney G. Mark Thomas renewed his promise to seek temporary stays in state court cases pending against three Ute tribal members. Thomas vowed to review a fourth contested case to determine whether it warranted a stay as well.
The prosecutor's promise eliminated any potential harm that might occur if an injunction were not granted, Jenkins said.
"It seems to me I don't have imminent danger (of harm)," Jenkins said. "(Uintah County) is going to hold things in abeyance, as I understand it.
"If there is an emergency that arises, people should feel free to call it to my attention through the proper motions," the judge added.
Attorneys for the Ute Tribe had sought an emergency court order barring the prosecution of tribal members for offenses they say were committed within the boundaries of the Uncompahgre or Uinta Valley Indian reservations.
The request was filed together with a larger lawsuit that accuses law enforcement officers in the Uintah Basin of engaging in racial profiling.
It's all part of a decades-long dispute over who has criminal and regulatory jurisdiction over tribal members in a region of Utah where the jurisdictional map resembles a checkerboard, and questions still remain about whether Congress "diminished or disestablished" the Uncompahgre Indian Reservation, which is part of the larger Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation.
"They are using these prosecutions to challenge tribal boundaries," Frances Bassett, an attorney for the tribe, told Jenkins.
"These are not your average, ordinary criminal prosecutions," Bassett said. "They're being used intentionally to come back at the tribe to steal portions of the tribe's reservation."
Blaine Rawson, an attorney for Uintah County, countered that vehicle pursuits were involved in at least two of the criminal cases the tribe has cited. During those chases, the suspects crossed numerous jurisdictional boundaries while fleeing from police.
"A defendant should not get off the hook because he drove through (tribal) trust land," Rawson argued.
Jenkins appeared to be frustrated with the attorneys on both sides early on, asking them repeatedly to identify the facts that they believe are in dispute and those that are not.
"I was hopeful, maybe overly optimistic, that folks were going to get together (before today's hearing) to define what they're talking about," said the judge, who inherited the case in 1978 when he took the federal bench.
By that time, it was already 3 years old.
Jenkins dismissed the case in 2000, after the parties inked a trio of 10-year contracts that appeared to resolve their jurisdictional disagreements. But in April, the tribe asked him to reopen the case, a request he granted.
By 11:30 a.m. Monday, Jenkins had sequestered 19 attorneys representing the tribe, the state, the counties and the cities of Duchesne, Myton and Roosevelt in his jury room.
He told them to work together to "identify genuine issues" surrounding the tribe's request for an emergency injunction against the state, counties and cities.
"Is it helpful if you continue working?" Jenkins asked the group when he returned to the bench at 2 p.m.
A few muttered responses indicated that it would not be.
"We did work in earnest when you sent us to the jury room," Rawson said.Comment on this story
Jenkins was presented with a list of more than 20 factual and legal questions that some of the lawyers believe must be addressed to resolve the case. He declined to issue the preliminary injunction, set a pretrial conference for April 2014, then offered some advice.
"I think it behooves everybody in this case to understand that everybody has to get along," the judge said. "And where they have competing sovereigns, they may need to accommodate one another."