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State v. Forge

Citation: 8 ELR 20332
No. Nos. 4673 et al., 262 N.W.2d 341/(Minn. Sup. Ct., 10/14/1977)

The court affirms the conviction of nonmembers of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe for fishing illegally on an Indian reservation, upholding the constitutionality of a statute requiring nonmembers of the tribe to pay a special license fee set by the tribe.

In 1969, the Leech Lake Band of Chippewa Indians (the Band) sought a declaratory judgment in federal court regarding their right to regulate fishing and hunting within the Leech Lake Reservation. In Leech Lake Band of Chippewa Indians v. Herbst, 334 F. Supp. 1001 (D. Minn. 1971), the court held that the Band had an unextinguished but nonexclusive treaty right to take fish from Leech Lake free of state regulation and that the Nelson Act of 1889, 25 Stat. 642, had not terminated the Leech Lake Reservation. Appeals from this decision were resolved by a settlement among the parties and the governor of Minnesota. Under the terms of the settlement agreement, fishing within the reservation by members of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe was exempted from state regulation, and the Band agreed to prohibit commercial fishing and to regulate the fishing activities of its members so as to conserve the resources for the tourist industry. In return, the state would collect, for the benefit of the Band, a supplemental license fee from non-Indians for the right to fish in the area. A committee of the Band was allowed to set the supplemental fee provided it did not exceed half the sum charged by the state for its licenses. The settlement was conditioned on adoption of legislation to effectuate its terms, and MINN. STAT. § 97.431 was subsequently enacted for that purpose.

The present controversy arose when appellants were subsequently arrested for fishing in Leech Lake without paying the supplemental fee. Although appellants were convicted, the trial judge concluded that the Nelson Act had terminated the reservation, with the result that any treaty rights claimed by the Band were nonexistent. Appellants claimed that § 97.431 denies non-Indians equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Minn. Const. art. 1, § 2 because it exempts all members of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe from paying the special fee and provides that the monies collected be paid to the Band. In addition, they alleged that § 97.431 is special legislation prohibited by Minn. Const. art. 4, § 33.

After reviewing the Nelson Act and two prior Chippewa treaties, the state supreme court concludes that the Nelson Act, which gave the Indians the option of remaining at Leech Lake rather than moving to the White Earth Reservation, did not terminate the Leech Lake Reservation and that the Band therefore retains unextinguished treaty rights to hunt and fish in the area. State v. Jackson, 218 Minn. 429, 16 N.W.2d 752 (1944). To the extent the Nelson Act is unclear regarding congressional intent to terminate the Leech Lake Reservation, the ambiguity should not be resolved to the prejudice of the Indians. Alaska Pacific Fisheries v. United States, 248 U.S. 78, 89 (1918); United States v. Winans, 198 U.S. 371, 381 (1905).

Given the continued existence of Indian treaty rights at Leech Lake, the court concludes that § 97.431 violates neither equal protection standards nor the prohibition against special legislation. The court has consistently upheld statutory distinctions where the classification has some natural and reasonable basis. Blue Earth Cty. Welfare Dept. v. Cabellero, 302 Minn. 329, 225 N.W.2d 373 (1974). Section 97.431 was enacted to effect the compromise regarding the Band's rights in Leech Lake while preserving the valuable fish resources and giving recognition to and compensation for historic treaty rights. Thus, the statute is rationally based, and is neither a denial of equal protection nor prohibited special legislation.

Finally, respondents argued that allowing a Band committee to set the fee was a delegation of legislative power in contravention of Minn. Const. art. 3, § 1. The court rejects this contention for two reasons. First, the authority to determine the fee is partially derived from treaty rights that are separate and distinct from legislative authorizations. Secondly, the committee is authorized only to determine the circumstances that will make the statute operative, and the legislature has not unconstitutionally delegated its exclusive power to enact a complete law. Anderson v. Commissioner of Highways, 267 Minn. 308, 126 N.W.2d 778 (1964).

The convictions are affirmed.

The full text of this opinion is available from ELR (8 pp. $1.00, ELR Order No. C-1152).

Counsel for Appellants
C. John Forge Jr.
Hencke & Forge
221 W. Lexington St., Independence MO 64050
(816) 252-2133

John H. Martin
Donnelly & Martin
Minnesota Bldg., St. Paul MN 55101
(612) 222-2797

Counsel for Respondent
Warren Spannaus, Attorney General; C. Paul Faraci, Deputy Attorney General; Steven G. Thorne, Special Ass't Attorney General
102 State Capitol, St. Paul MN 55155
(612) 296-2591

John L. Plattner, County Attorney
Plattner & Milligan
P.O. Box 569, Walker MN 56484
(218) 547-1319

Rogosheske, J.