U.S. Supreme Court Rejects State of Utah’s Attempt to Overturn the Ute Tribe’s Victory in Tribal Exhaustion Case

U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Native News Online photo by Levi Rickert

Published January 12, 2019

WASHINGTON — On January 7, 2019, the United States Supreme Court ordered that it would not review or overturn the Utah Supreme Court’s November 7, 2017 decision in favor of tribal court jurisdiction. The Utah Supreme Court’s decision, which is now final, held that in order to properly respect the separate sovereignty of the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, state courts in Utah must defer to the Ute Tribe’s Court for a dispute between a non-Indian and the Ute Tribe or tribal officers.

The case, Harvey v. Ute Indian Tribe, U.S. Supreme Court case 17-1301, grew out of a Utah state court suit brought by Ryan Harvey, Rocks Off Inc., and Wildcat Rentals Inc. against the Ute Indian Tribe, L.C. Welding & Construction, Inc., Larose Construction Company, D. Ray C. Enterprises LLC, Huffman Enterprises, Newfield Production Company and several other named tribal officials.

The State Court plaintiffs asserted that the Ute Indian Tribe did not have jurisdiction to regulate non-tribal business within the Uintah and Ouray Reservation through tribal employment preference program, UTERO, and tribal business licensing laws. Plaintiffs further asserted that the State Court had authority to decide whether the Tribe or its officers’ actions were wrongful.

The Tribe and tribal officers moved to dismiss the State Court suit. The Utah Eighth Judicial District dismissed the suit, and the State Court Plaintiffs appealed that decision to the Utah Supreme Court. In its November 7, 2016 decision in that appeal, the Utah Supreme Court unanimously agreed with the well-established legal rule that the claims against the Tribe could not go forward in the State Court. The Utah Supreme Court also held that the Utah State Court would not have jurisdiction over claim against individual tribal members if those members were acting in their capacity as tribal agents, officials or officers. And finally, the Utah Supreme Court held, by majority opinion, that the Tribe’s Court, not the State’s Court, has exclusive jurisdiction to decide whether the named tribal members were acting as tribal agents, officials, or officers. The Utah Supreme Court remanded the case for an exhaustion of tribal court remedies.

In March 2018, State Court Plaintiffs filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, asking the United States Supreme Court to review the Utah Supreme Court’s decision requiring exhaustion of tribal court remedies. In an unusual step, the State of Utah filed an amicus brief in the United States Supreme Court, in which the State argued that the Utah Supreme Court’s holdings regarding Utah law was wrong and that by respecting the Tribe’s sovereignty, the Utah State Supreme Court justices were undermining the State’s sovereignty. The State of Utah asked the United States Supreme Court to overturn the Utah State Supreme Court’s decision.

The Tribe opposed the State Court Plaintiffs’ petition for writ of certiorari. In its response to the petition, the Tribe explained why exhaustion of tribal court remedies was proper, and why the State of Utah’s contrary argument was merely a continuation of the State of Utah’s well known, long-standing refusal to respect tribal sovereignty. Because of the unique and complex issues in the case, the United States Supreme Court then asked the United States Solicitor General (the head federal appellate attorney) to provide his opinion on whether the Supreme Court should hear the case. On December 4, 2018, the Solicitor General filed his brief, in which he agreed with nearly all of the Tribe’s prior brief, and in which he recommended that the United States Supreme Court should not review the case or vacate the Utah Supreme Court decision. In its January 7, 2019 order, the United States Supreme Court agreed with the Tribe and the Solicitor General, and it issued a one sentence order denying certiorari.

The Tribe’s Business Committee issued the following official statement:

Before turning to the Supreme Court decision, we express our sincere condolences to the family of Ryan Harvey, the named lead plaintiff in the case, who tragically died in an auto accident this week. The Tribe and Mr. Harvey’s businesses were adversaries in the courthouse, but more importantly we were all members of the Uintah Valley community and were neighbors. His presence in our community will be missed.

Turning to the Supreme Court’s decision, the Tribe’s Business Committee stated:

The Utah Supreme Court issued an important, and as we understand it a conciliatory, decision that its courts will respect the Ute Tribe’s sovereign rights to govern the Tribe’s own homeland. The Tribe was disappointed that the Utah executive branch filed an amicus disagreeing with its own Supreme Court. Our hope is that the all parts of Utah’s government will follow the State Supreme Court lead on this matter.


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