US Court of Appeals reverses decision on Navajo Nation 2003 water rights lawsuit

Politics - Government

NAVAJO NATION (KRQE) – The United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the decision of the District Court for Arizona that previously dismissed the Navajo Nation’s 2003 lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior, related to the Nation’s water rights.

According to a news release from the Office of the President and Vice President of the Navajo Nation, in the lawsuit, the Navajo Nation declared that the Secretary of Interior had taken several actions relating to the management of the Colorado River that breached the federal government’s trust obligations to protect the water resources of the Navajo Nation or to secure and protect water supplies from the Colorado River that are required for the needs of the Navajo Nation in Arizona. 

The news release states that the U.S. District Court of Arizona had dismissed the lawsuit because the U.S. had not waived its sovereign immunity. The Navajo Nation appealed to the Ninth Circuit, and in 2017, the Court joined the majority of Circuits in holding that the Administrative Procedures Act waives the sovereign immunity of the U.S. for all causes of action not seeking monetary damages, reversing the decision of the district court and confined the case to allow the Navajo Nation’s breach of trust claim to proceed.

The district court again dismissed the Navajo Nation’s case on the grounds that the Nation had failed to identify an enforceable cause of action against the U.S. according to the news release. Led by then Assistant Attorney General Stanley Pollack, the Nation’s Department of Justice’s Water Rights Unit handled the endeavor.

Now retired Navajo Nation Department of Justice Water Rights Attorney Kate Hoover argued the case in Oct. 2020 before the Ninth Circuit. In a reversal, the Ninth Circuit found that the Navajo Nation had identified provisions in the Nation’s treaties with the U.S. in addition to related statutes and executive orders that established the “Navajo reservation” that allowed for enforceable duty by the U.S. to protect the water resources of the Nation.

The case was remanded back to the district court with instructions to allow the Navajo Nation to amend its complaint. The news release indicates this is the second recent victory of the Navajo Nation regarding water rights.

The New Mexico Supreme Court dismissed all challenges to the Navajo Nation’s water rights settlement with the State of New Mexico regarding the Suan Juan River on March 28. This ended litigation that started in 2009 after Congress approved the settlement.

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