9th Circuit affirms tribal sovereignty in North Idaho encroachment ruling

(Image: Coeur d’Alene Tribe Facebook Page)

Coeur d’Alene Tribe victory impacts Indian law across 9 states

News Release

Coeur d’Alene Tribe

In a decision impacting tribes across the Western United States, the 9th Circuit United States Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe on August 9, 2019, clarifying the binding power of tribal court decisions and setting a groundbreaking precedent in the field of Indian law.

Judge Richard Randall Clifton, writing on behalf of a three-judge panel, ruled that tribes have the ability to enforce their judgments against non-members in federal court. Now, tribes and non-tribal members have clear guidance under the rule of law that tribal court decisions are enforceable in federal court.

“This a victory not just for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, but it also provides important precedent for all tribes within the 9th Circuit region that our tribal courts’ judgments against non-members can be recognized and enforced at the federal level,” Ernie Stensgar, Chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council. “Our tribe is committed to protecting its resources through all legal means and we look forward to achieving 100% encroachment compliance in the near future.”

The 9 Circuit ruling holds that when a tribe, acting under its sovereign power to enforce its own laws against a non-member, brings a tribal court judgment to the federal court for recognition, tribal court decisions can be enforced by the federal courts.

The opinion follows years of battles in the Coeur d’Alene Tribe v. Hawks case stemming from an encroachment of a boat garage and pilings on the southern shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene. The portions of Lake Coeur d’Alene and the St. Joe River within the boundaries of the Reservation are held by the United States in trust for the benefit of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, law that was reaffirmed in Idaho v. United States and Coeur d’Alene Tribe in 2001.

The encroachments violate codes implemented by the Tribe, and in 2003 the Tribe requested the encroachments be removed. The Hawks ignored the tribal court action, including judgment requiring removal of the encroachments, until the tribe has filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Idaho in 2016. The goal of the Tribe was to have the previous Tribal Court Judgment recognized and enforced but ultimately, that Court ultimately dismissed the Tribe’s case. The tribe then appealed the District Court’s dismissal to the 9th Circuit.

Attorney Jillian Caires of Smith + Malek argued on behalf of the Tribe in Coeur d’Alene Tribe v. Hawks. Caires worked with founding Smith + Malek attorney Peter J. Smith on the case. Smith argued a similar case In 2017 on behalf of the Tribe before the Idaho Supreme Court in Coeur d’Alene Tribe v. Johnson in the Idaho Supreme Court, resulting in new state law affirming the sovereignty of the tribe and enforceability of tribal court judgments.

“Together, the Hawks and Johnson decisions reinforce that tribes are sovereign nations, and make clear that tribal court judgments against non- tribal members may be recognized and enforced at both the federal and state levels,” Caires said. 

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