January 24, 2017

Court rules sovereign immunity applies to tribal land outside reservation boundaries

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) – The New Mexico Court of Appeals has ruled that tribal sovereignty protects tribes and pueblos from lawsuits involving lands they own outside their reservations.

The ruling came in a dispute between Laguna Pueblo and a rancher over 640 acres in the Mount Taylor foothills of northwestern New Mexico.

Cibola County rancher Robert Armijo contended he bought the property in 1994 from a land grant and had a warranty deed to prove it. Laguna Pueblo said the parcel is part of 8,300 acres it bought in 2008 from Silver Dollar Ranch LLC.

The appellate court ruled Dec. 6 that a state district judge lacked jurisdiction to decide who owns the property because the pueblo has immunity from lawsuits – even if the land is outside its boundaries.

An attorney for the rancher, Tibo Chavez of Belen, said the state Supreme Court has declined to hear the case. Chavez called the decision problematic.

“Sovereign immunity elevates the tribes above constitutionally protected property rights,” and may forestall legal claims related to off-reservation properties owned by tribes, he said.

“What if someone was injured on this land?” he said. “Are there applications of negligence law that would apply?”

The attorney representing Laguna Pueblo, Daniel Rey-Bear of Albuquerque, declined to comment.

Sovereign immunity protects protected tribes and pueblos from lawsuits on tribal lands held in trust by the U.S. Department of Interior.

Chavez said the Court of Appeals ruling extends tribal sovereign immunity to “fee lands” purchased by tribes but not held in trust.

The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on the question of whether courts have jurisdiction in cases involving tribal fee land, said Matthew L.M. Fletcher, a Michigan State University law professor who is a specialist in tribal law.

Disputes stemming from off-reservation land owned by tribes have become more common in part because casino revenue made it possible for tribes to buy land as never before, Fletcher said.

At the same time, he said, the Department of Interior has made it more difficult for tribes to put land into trust.

“So now, tribes have more and more land because they have more money, and are less and less likely to put that land into trust,” he said.

He said tribes often choose to waive their sovereign immunity when they invest in off-reservation businesses often at the urging of outside business partners and banks. He said investors do not want to be in business with a tribe that has not waived its immunity for tort claims.

Chavez said Armijo bought the land from the Cebolleta land grant and has since raised cattle and paid taxes on the property.

Laguna Pueblo in 2009 asked Judge William Sanchez to dismiss Armijo's claim to ownership, arguing the court lacked jurisdiction because the pueblo had sovereign immunity.

Sanchez refused, citing “basic fairness” to Armijo.

A three-judge appellate panel reversed the decision and ordered Sanchez to dismiss Armijo's claim. Judge Celia Foy Castillo, writing for the panel, said the issue of “basic fairness” has no bearing on sovereign immunity.


Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com