The Ute reservation boundary conflict that began in 1975 in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City and then bounced among various courts over the next 23 years, has presumably ended.
LastMonday, the U.S. Supreme Court denied an attempt by Duchesne and Uintah counties to have the U.S. Supreme Court revisit its 1994 decision in Hagen vs. Utah.The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the ruling left the original boundaries of the Uintah Valley reservation intact. The two counties disagreed, saying the Supreme Court intended to dissolve the reservation boundaries.
The Supreme Court's denial means the appeals court decision handed down May 8, 1997, will stand. The ruling removed land from the reservation, which was opened by Congress in 1902 and 1903 to homesteaders, but left the exterior boundaries in place.
In accordance with the appeals court ruling the Ute Tribe "retains the authority to regulate and adjudicate Indians' conduct on all lands within the original boundaries, except those lands settled under federal homestead or town-site laws." The largest piece of homestead land is Roosevelt city and the outlying area.
The reservation boundaries encompass close to 4 million acres in Duchesne County and west Uintah County.
A complex mapping process is under way to determine precisely where the Ute Tribe has jurisdictional authority within the two counties. The maps look like a colorful patchwork marking different land categories. Many lands that are under tribal jurisdiction are owned by non-Indians.
Ute Tribe Attorney Robert Thompson said the tribe doesn't plan to change anything. noting that the tribe has had the authority to exercise its jurisdiction over those lands since 1983 but has never done so.
Duchesne County commissioners say they have no plans to continue with litigation, and with the latest court verdict in hand they hope to resume negotiations with the Ute Tribe Business Committee.
Talks broke off last summer when the Duchesne and Uintah counties opted to appeal the 10th Circuit Court ruling to the Supreme Court. Tribal leaders said they could not continue negotiations in good faith while county officials continued to litigate the exterior boundaries.
"I think we have done what the taxpayers expected us to do in pursuing the appeal and protecting their rights," said Duchesne County Commissioner John Swasey. "I think all we can do now is accept the decision of the 10th Circuit Court and get on with life."
Commissioners hope to hammer out the fine points of a memorandum of understanding signed between the counties and tribe in 1994. The document dealt with rights-of-way, taxation, planning and zoning, business regulation, water issues and law enforcement.
Thompson said his clients have not closed their doors to neighboring governments, adding "that there's always been a standing invitation," to discuss matters of common concern.
"My clients recognize there are multi-governments within the eastern portion of Utah; equally so they recognize the importance to protect their members," he said.
Jurisdictional authority over their own tribal members is what the court battles have been all about for the Ute Tribe. The tribe instigated court proceedings in 1975 when it implemented its Law and Order Code and went to U.S. District Court in an effort to have the original boundaries of the reservation acknowledged so it could arrest and prosecute its own members in their own court.
For the counties the boundary case was fought on the grounds that it was unconstitutional to allow the tribal government to have jurisdiction over non-Indians who have no representation and no vote in tribal government.