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As the decades-old court battle over Ute tribal boundaries continues, attorneys for the tribe have taken umbrage over a letter a federal judge recently wrote to correct the record.
On Wednesday, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation said U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins seemed "in effect" to be seeking reconsideration of an order that he be removed from the case.
The federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a decision on Aug. 9, saying Jenkins had failed to enforce two of its mandates in the dispute and ordered the case reassigned to another judge, as requested by the tribe. The ruling stressed that the court found "no sign of bias" from Jenkins.
Less than a week later, Jenkins wrote a letter denying the allegation and saying the 10th Circuit had misattributed to him an order issued by another jurist. The letter was addressed to Chief Judge David Nuffer of the U.S. District of Utah, whose duties include assigning cases.
Then, on Monday, the appeals court issued an amended decision that says Jenkins failed to enforce one of its mandates, rather than two.
In a letter to Nuffer on behalf of the tribe, attorney Jeffrey Rasmussen wrote Wednesday that if there were further proceedings on the reassignment, the tribe wanted an opportunity to participate so its position would be heard.
"As experienced practitioners, we have never before seen a letter like this openly stating why the judge disagrees with a superior court's decision, nor do we believe that a public letter of this sort, which seems more like an advocate's motion for reconsideration by the Tenth Circuit, is appropriate in an ongoing matter." Rasmussen wrote.
Both letters have been made part of the court record.
Also on Wednesday, the Ute Business Committee released a statement applauding the 10th Circuit decision and saying Jenkins had been openly hostile toward the tribe and its attorneys.
"His removal from the case was necessary to ensure this case is heard in a fair and timely manner and to ensure the state's encroachment on the Tribe's sovereign authority is brought to an end through the issuance of a permanent injunction restricting the state from continuing to engage in illegal prosecutions of Tribal members within the Uintah and Ouray Reservation," the statement said.
The court case began in 1975, when the Ute Tribe filed suit, alleging the state and several local governments were prosecuting American Indians for crimes they allegedly committed on tribal lands. The litigation focuses on the boundaries of "Indian country."
Jenkins inherited the case when he was appointed to the federal bench in 1978. A new judge has not been assigned.
In addition to asking the 10th Circuit to reassign the case, attorneys for the tribe had filed a motion in March in U.S. District Court in Utah, seeking to disqualify Jenkins from presiding in the matter because, among other alleged reasons, he was biased.
Judge Stephen Friot, of Oklahoma, was assigned to hear the motion and denied it in July, ruling that the arguments in support of disqualification were "without merit."
Referring to a claim that the tone of Jenkins' interactions with the tribe's attorneys differed from the tone of his interactions with the attorneys for the governmental entities, Friot said that on more than a few occasions, Rasmussen chose to be confrontational.
"Judge Jenkins' occasional sharp responses to gratuitous provocation prove only that he is human," Friot wrote.
Rasmussen did not respond immediately to a request for comment Wednesday.