Lane Powell Victory Keeps Snohomish Tribe’s Quest for Federal Recognition Alive
The Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of Lane Powell’s client, the Snohomish Tribe of Indians, on an issue that could have put an end to the Snohomish’s quest for federal recognition. The Snohomish spent 30 years trying to gain federal recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (“BIA”) administrative process. Gaining federal recognition gives a tribe incalculable benefits, including a government-to-government relationship with the federal government, sovereign status, federal funding, the ability to place land into trust status (where it is free from state and local regulation), and the ability to operate a casino.
The BIA denied the Snohomish’s petition for federal recognition in 2007, and Lane Powell attorneys Alex Smith and John Devlin represented the Snohomish in its suit against BIA challenging that denial. The Tulalip Tribe moved to intervene, claiming it had a “protectable” interest in the case because, it claimed, its treaty fishing rights could be impacted if the Snohomish gained federal recognition. Once it had intervened, Tulalip planned to move to dismiss the case because it claimed it was an indispensable party who could not be joined due to its sovereign immunity. If successful, Tulalip would deny the Snohomish even one day in court on the merits of its challenge to the BIA.
The Snohomish won at the district court level, and the Ninth Circuit eventually agreed. Although the case took a brief detour into a separate Ninth Circuit en banc proceeding, the Ninth Circuit panel hearing Tulalip’s appeal eventually agreed that treaty fishing rights and federal recognition are separate issues with distinct legal effects and that a tribe gaining federal recognition, without more, has no impact on any other tribe’s previously-adjudicated treaty fishing rights. Accordingly, the Court upheld the district court’s denial of Tulalip’s motion to intervene and denied its attempt to end the case before the Snohomish had their day in court.