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Members of the Crow Tribe Sue Department of the Interior Seeking to Void 2010 Settlement Act

A river runnning through a boreal forest.

Aerial View of Boreal Nature Forest in Summer, Quebec, Canada

On Tuesday, members of the Crow Tribe filed a lawsuit in D.C. District Court against the United States Department of the Interior, its Secretary and the Assistant United States Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs alleging violations of the Administrative Procedures Act, the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and breach of fiduciary duty.

According to the complaint, the Crow Tribe is a federally recognized tribe in eastern Montana. Further, the complaint states that the 1920 Crow Allotment Act places Crow reservation lands into individual tracts to be held in trust by the United States for every enrolled member of the Crow Tribe. The complaint purports that under the Crow Allotment Act and the federal common law Winters Doctrine members of the Crow Tribe are also allotted a portion of the Crow Reservations water rights to irrigate “practicably irrigable acres.”

The complaint further states that in 2010 Congress passed the 2010 Settlement Act which abandoned the water rights allotted to Tribe members and required the Tribe to adopt a Tribal Water Code, including a licensing and permitting system governing the allocation and distribution of water rights. The Tribe members purports that once a tribal Water code has been adopted the Secretary of the Interior is required to approve the tribal water code “within a reasonable period of time after … the Tribe submits it to the Secretary.” 

However, the complaint states that the Crow Tribe has never adopted a Tribal Water Code and thus the Tribe’s members have been deprived of their water rights under the Winters Doctrine “without due process of law, just compensation, or for a public purpose as required by the Fifth Amendment.”

Additionally, the Tribe members argue that the United States has breached its fiduciary duty to protect the Crow Tribe and its members allotments and interests under the Winters Doctrine. The Tribe members argue that the United States has breached its fiduciary duty and has been subject to “egregious conflicts of interest” with respect to its duty to the Tribe. 

Accordingly, the complaint states that on May 15, 2014, Crow Tribe members filed a lawsuit seeking broad equitable relief, including declaratory and injunctive relief, against the Interior Department for violations of the fiduciary obligations of the United States. However, the complaint states that the Montana Water Court, the Montana Supreme Court, the District Court for Montana and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the Tribe members’ objects and complaints stating that the Tribe members failed to assert a claim on which relief could be granted. 

Nonetheless, Tribe members filed the present lawsuit seeking declaratory judgment that the 2010 Crow Settlement Act is void, the Tribe members have water rights under the Winters Doctrine and that the United States breached its fiduciary duty to the Crown Tribe members. The plaintiffs are represented by Barnhouse Keegan Solimon & West LLP, and the Law Offices of Thomas E. Luebben PC.  

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