A local tribe’s lawsuit challenging state ownership of Lake Coeur d’Alene doesn’t hold water as a federal case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.
“The suit would diminish, even extinguish, the state’s control over a vast reach of lands and waters long deemed by the state to be an integral part of its territory,” the 5-4 opinion said of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s lawsuit against the Idaho Land Board.
“The dignity and status of its statehood allows Idaho to rely on its 11th Amendment immunity to insist upon responding to these claims in its own courts.”
While the Supreme Court sided with the state on the technical issue of which court should try the lawsuit, it was careful not to take issue with the particulars of the case.
“As the tribe views the case, the lands are just as necessary, perhaps even more so, to its own dignity and ancient right,” the court’s ruling said. “The question before us is not the merit of either party’s claim, however, but the relation between the sovereign lands at issue and the immunity the state asserts.”
The tribe is unhappy with the ruling but is far from giving up. The Supreme Court decision does not affect a similar suit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice against the state.
That case claims the tribe owns the southern end of the lake and the St. Joe River, said Ray Givens, the tribe’s attorney. That suit is scheduled to go to trial in federal court in December.
“This decision only causes delay,” Givens said of Monday’s ruling. “The ownership of the northern portion of Lake Coeur d’Alene will now have to be decided another day in another lawsuit, possibly in another court.”
Coeur d’Alene Tribal Chairman Ernie Stensgar was not available for comment.
Idaho Attorney General Alan Lance said the decision bolsters an important state right. “It means that those who seek to sue the state in federal court cannot use artful pleading to end-run the 11th Amendment,” Lance said.
The 11th Amendment holds that individuals and tribes cannot sue a state in federal court. There is one exception. The courts have allowed suits against individual state officials over alleged violations of federal law.
The tribe was relying on that exception in suing members of the Land Board, which is comprised of the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction and controller.
These state officials failed to protect the 30-mile lake from a century of mining pollution. They also have failed to clean it up, the tribe said.
The tribe also contends the Coeur d’Alenes received title to the lake and related rivers in an 1873 executive order from President Ulysses S. Grant.
A federal judge dismissed the tribe’s original suit. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated it and the state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Twenty-three states joined Idaho in its appeal. Oral arguments were heard in October 1996.
“The issues are very technical,” said Will Whelan, deputy Idaho attorney general, “and it’s a very narrow ruling.”
Basically the Supreme Court ruled the tribe is not suing state officials for violating the law, Whelan said. Instead the issue is over title to the land under the lake and, therefore, ownership of the lake.
“The ruling says title to the land is such a central aspect of the sovereignty of the state that these cases should be litigated in state court, not federal court,” Whelan said.
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