Trust Doctrine: Ute Tribe plans on appealing court decision

Ute Tribal lands
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September 29, 2023 — The Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation is appealing a decision entered in the United States District Court for the District of UtahOpens in a new tab. that dismissed most of their water rights lawsuit. This lawsuit involves both state and federal officials and focuses on allegations of mishandling of tribal land and water. Initiated in 2018, this lawsuit has roots in longstanding disputes regarding water resources and infrastructure near the reservation.

Remaining Components of the Lawsuit.

The September 26 Memorandum Decision and OrderOpens in a new tab. by Judge Jill Parrish retains only two elements of the original lawsuit, both revolving around water-related concerns. These parts are crucial as they represent the main grievances of the tribe and are connected to various treaties and acts that the tribe asserts have been violated by state and federal governments.

The Navajo Nation’s Parallel Case.

Utah’s KSL NewsOpens in a new tab. reports that the Ute Tribe’s case is parallel to a recent U.S. Supreme Court case involving the Navajo Nation. In both instances, the court decisions concluded that the government does not have enforceable legal duties to these tribes regarding water rights. These rulings have raised concerns among various tribes, as they deviate from longstanding legal precedents and question the accountability of the United States regarding the management of tribal assets.

Trust Doctrine and Government Obligations.

The central argument of the Ute Tribe hinges on the trust doctrine, emphasizing the government’s duty to uphold tribal rights and resources and support tribal self-governance and prosperity. The Ute Tribe believes that their unique federal statute related to irrigation projects and several other historical statutes imply explicit trust responsibilitiesOpens in a new tab., and the recent rulings contradict these.

Reaction to the Biden Administration.

The outcomes of these cases have resulted in criticism of the Biden administration from some tribal leaders, who argue that it appears to be diminishing the federal government’s responsibilities to the tribes. KSL NewsOpens in a new tab. reports that the Ute Indian Tribal Business Committee claims that the administration seems to be aligning more with state and local governments and not adequately upholding tribal interests.

Future Implications and Advocacy.

The Ute Tribe is actively appealing its lawsuit and is advocating for Congressional actions to mitigate the effects of the Navajo Nation ruling.  The dismissal of portions of the Ute Tribe’s lawsuit highlights broader complexities within federal-tribal relationships.


A photograph of a road sign south of White Mesa, Utah, that contains the Ute Mountain Tribe seal. White Mesa can be seen in the background approximately 3 kilometers away. The Carrizo Mountains can be seen in the background approximately 70 kilometers away. The sign is located on the west side of U.S. Route 191 south of Blanding, Utah, and north of White Mesa, Utah. Photograph taken on 2019-02-26T22:48:42Z.  Photographer:  Steven Baltakatei Sandoval.  Shared via Wikimedia CommonsOpens in a new tab..


Since 1995, Deborah has owned and operated LegalTech LLC with a focus on water rights. Before moving to Arizona in 1986, she worked as a quality control analyst for Honeywell and in commercial real estate, both in Texas. She learned about Arizona's water rights from the late and great attorney Michael Brophy of Ryley, Carlock & Applewhite. Her side interests are writing (and reading), Wordpress programming and much more.

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