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United States v. Hardman

Citation: 33 ELR 20018
No. Nos. 99-4210 et al., 297 F.3d 1116/(10th Cir., 08/05/2002) Aff'd in part & remanded in part

The court holds that the federal government failed to show how limiting permits for eagle feathers only to members of federally recognized tribes is the least restrictive means of advancing the government's interests in preserving eagle populations and protecting Native American culture. An individual who is a member of a nonfederally recognized Native American tribe was charged for possessing eagle feathers without a permit. The charges were dropped, but the individual filed suit against the government claiming that the permit regulations governing the Bald and Golden Eagles Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). A district court found in favor of the individual, and the government appealed.

The court first holds that the government's interests in protecting eagles, preserving Native American culture and religion, and pursuing its trust obligations to Native American tribes are compelling. This does not, however, relieve the government of its burden to prove that the statutes and regulations constitute the least restrictive means of achieving its goals. The court then holds that here, the government failed to demonstrate how the current regulations serve each of its asserted interests. The record is devoid of hard evidence indicating that the current regulations are narrowly tailored to advance the government's interests, and it does not address the possibility of other, less restrictive means of achieving those interests. The court, therefore, affirms the district court's decision. In addition, the court remands RFRA cases brought by two individuals who also were not members of a federally recognized tribe for a determination of whether the regulations represent the least restrictive means of advancing the government's interests. The individuals' RFRA claims were dismissed below, thus, the parties did not have an opportunity to develop a record.

[Prior decisions in this litigation are digested at 32 ELR 20028, 20030, and 20031].

Counsel for Plaintiff
Kathryn E. Kovacs
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000

Counsel for Defendant
Cindy Barton-Coombs
Law Offices of Cindy Barton-Coombs
193 N. State St., Roosevelt VT 84066
(435) 722-0200