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Tribe says Supreme Court denial in Az case sets dangerous precedent

The U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal this week to hear an Arizona tribe’s land case could erode Indian governments’ sovereign right to enforce access to their property, the Gila Indian River Community said.

But an attorney for the landowner who filed suit against the tribe said the Pinal County case is so convoluted, and the facts so specific, that the high court’s action Monday is unlikely to set broad precedent for other cases.

The high court’s decision Monday essentially confirms a lower court’s decision that the Gila River Indian Community cannot keep non–tribal owners of a plot known as “Section 16″ from using tribal roads to get to their land. Rights of access were inherent in ownership of the land, lower courts said.

“In recognizing for the first time that a non–Indian landowner has an implied right of access over Indian lands, the courts have not only threatened the sovereignty of the community, but created a precedent that will affect all of Indian country,” the tribe said in a statement through attorney Thomas Murphy.

The tribe had argued that lower courts erred by not requiring that the United States be a party to the suit. The U.S. holds tribal lands in trust and typically a suit over tribal land use cannot proceed without bringing in the U.S. – which enjoys sovereign immunity, basically giving it a trump card in disputes such as this.

But Section 16′s owners sued the tribe without naming the United States, arguing that tribes can make claims on their own. The courts agreed that the federal government did not need to be involved in the dispute

The attorney for the owners of Section 16, Paul Eckstein, said the details of the Gila River case are too unique to set a broad precedent.

“We’re not aware of any other situation that has all these factors, or even half of them,” Eckstein said.

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While the case and court’s opinion are unique, the possibility of a tribe being sued alone – without the federal government – is worrisome, said Michigan State University Indian law expert Matthew Fletcher. He said this case could encourage more people to sue tribes in land–use disagreements.

“That would have absolutely huge repercussions,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher called some of the courts’ statements “troubling,” as they might be used to pry open other tribal land–use claims by non–Indians.

“There are other landowners who have conflicts with tribes that could be encouraged by this,” he said.

Still, the case poses “a very narrow question, to be sure” because of its unique circumstances, Fletcher said.

When Arizona became a territory in 1863, the federal government gave it Section 16 to benefit education, by hosting schools or being sold to raise money for schools. Section 16 was not surrounded by the Gila River Indian Community until 1913.

The parcel was sold to private ownership in 1929 and changed hands several times before it was purchased by Michael and Debra Schugg’s dairy company in 2001.

The Schuggs later applied for a zoning change from “rural” to “transitional,” which would have allowed more housing units on the 657 acres. That proposal was rejected, however, and the Schuggs filed for bankruptcy in 2004.

The Gila River Indian Community then filed in the bankruptcy case, claiming that the Schuggs had trespassed on tribal land by driving to the parcel.

The tribe wanted to block access because it feared Section 16 could become a high–density residential community, making the roads open to many non–tribal members without its consent, according to court documents.

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According to court documents, the bankruptcy trustee had been contacting developers about the site, which the tribe said could have added 8,000 residents to the area and 4,000 cars to reservation roads.

But Eckstein charged that the tribe’s efforts were meant to isolate the land and make it available at a good price.

“From my clients’ perspective, it always appeared that the Gila River Indian Community wanted to get the land cheaply, and for understandable reasons,” he said.

“It’d be like the city of New York having a square mile in the middle of the city that was not subject to its laws,” he added later.

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Click image to enlarge

This Pinal County-provided map shows the location of Section 16, which has been gradually surrounded by the Gila River Indian Community reservation and has been the subject of a court fight over access.