13 ELR 20817 | Environmental Law Reporter | copyright © 1983 | All rights reserved

Arizona v. San Carlos Apache Tribe

Nos. 81-2147; -2188 (U.S. July 1, 1983)

ELR Digest

The Court rules that there are no federal bars to state adjudication of Indian water rights, and federal courts may properly dismiss Indian water rights suits in favor of pending state adjudications. The plaintiff tribes separately brought suits in federal district courts to resolve disputes over their water rights in Arizona and Montana, two states where the federal government reserved all control over Indians and Indian lands at statehood. The Court previously ruled, in Colorado River Conservation District v. United States, that under the McCarran Amendment the United States has waived sovereign immunity in comprehensive state water adjudications and that a federal court hearing a water dispute concurrently with a state court should dismiss the suit in the interest of wise judicial administration. Therefore, the district courts dismissed the cases below. The Ninth Circuit reversed holding that the two states' enabling acts barred them from adjudicating Indian water claims, and that Colorado River could be distinguished.

The Court initially notes several points not at issue: that federal courts have jurisdiction to hear Indian claims; that dismissal would be improper if the state courts lacked jurisdiction; that Pub. L. No. 83-280, granting states jurisdiction over certain Indian matters, does not affect jurisdiction over water rights; that the Court cannot overrule state interpretations of state jurisdiction laws unless those interpretations conflict with federal law. After a brief review of prior Indian jurisdiction cases, the Court holds that the McCarran Amendment controls the instant case. Congress intended the Amendment's waiver of immunity in water rights cases to apply uniformly among the states. Thus, the Amendment must apply to Arizona and Montana notwithstanding the reservation of federal jurisdiction over Indian matters in the two states' enabling acts.

Next, the Court rules that the Colorado River analysis, which applied to the United States as a party, applies equally to private parties asserting their own rights. If state courts have jurisdiction over Indian water rights disputes, allowing concurrent proceedings in federal court would normally be wasteful and duplicative, and would encourage the two fora to race to be first to render judgment contrary to the purpose of the McCarran Amendment. The court notes that a federal proceeding would be proper if the state court agreed to stay its own proceeding or if the federal proceeding was so well advanced as to make the dismissal wasteful. Also, when private parties bring suit to assert their own rights, that fact should weigh against dismissal. however, in the instant case, federal dismissal is in the interests of judicial efficiency. The Court notes, though, the it does not intend its decision to detract from the sovereign immunity of Indian tribes outside of water law, nor does it intend to lessen the protection federal law and courts give to federally granted Indian rights.

Justice Marshall, dissenting, notes the obligation of federal courts to exercise their jurisdiction, the congressional policy of affording Indians a federal forum, and the minimal duplication that dual proceedings would lead to in the instant case.

Justice Stevens, dissenting and joined by Justice Blackmun, notes that the Indian claims were based on federal law and argues that they would be best adjudicated in the federal courts. Federal adjudication will not be inefficient, since the federal and state issues will have to be decided independently even if one court decides them both. Justice Stevens would not force the Indians to litigate in a potentially hostile forum. He notes that the federal government has a special relationship with and special obligations to the tribes, and Congress has promised the tribes access to the federal courts in suits involving federal law. And he notes that if the suit involves a federal issue destined to be decided on appeal, handling the federal issues in federal courts could actually promote judicial efficiency.

The full text of this opinion is available from ELR (38 pp. $5.25, ELR Order No. C-1316).

Counsel for Petitioners
Robert K. Corbin, Attorney General
Dep't of Law, 1700 W. Washington St., Phoenix AZ 85007
(602) 255-5025

Bill Stephens
Stephens & Toles
1010 E. Jefferson Place, Phoenix AZ 85034
(602) 253-1010

John L. Kyl, M. Bryan Lewis
Jennings, Strouss & Salmon
111 W. Monroe St., Phoenix AZ 85003
(602) 262-5911

Counsel for Respondents
Philip J. Shea
Shea & Wilks
200 First Interstate Bldg., 114 W. Adams St., Phoenix AZ 85003
(602) 257-1126

Mark Wilmer
Snell & Wilmer
3100 Valley Bank Ctr., Phoenix AZ 85073
(602) 257-7211

Brennan, J.


13 ELR 20817 | Environmental Law Reporter | copyright © 1983 | All rights reserved