Federal Court of Appeals upholds Navajo tribal sovereignty in lawsuit

FARMINGTON, N.M. — The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit and affirmed Navajo Transitional Energy’s right to assert sovereign immunity.

 In its ruling July 29, the three-judge panel of the appellate court unanimously upheld a September 2017 U.S. District Court dismissal of a lawsuit brought by Diné C.A.R.E., the Sierra Club and others against various agencies in the Department of Interior attempting to challenge the approval of a 25-year lease extension involving Four Corners Power Plant and Navajo Mine.

The suit was dismissed after Navajo Transitional Energy Company (NTEC) successfully argued that NTEC should be allowed to intervene as a required party to the lawsuit. NTEC is a wholly-owned tribal entity and is entitled to assert sovereign immunity against claims such as the ones being brought by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. 

Therefore, NTEC argued the entire case must be also dismissed. The federal district court agreed, and after allowing NTEC to intervene, proceeded to dismiss the case.

 NTEC said, in its unanimous opinion the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals recognized and upheld Navajo sovereignty and self-determination. 

“The Navajo Nation’s interest is tied to its very ability to govern itself, sustain itself financially, and make decisions about its own natural resources,” Circuit Judge Michelle Friedland wrote.  

The appellate court confirmed both NTEC’s right to have intervened in the lawsuit as well as its ability to assert sovereign immunity against the underlying claims asserted by the various environmental groups.  Based on these findings, the court upheld the dismissal of all claims.

 In addition, the appellate court agreed with previous NTEC arguments that NTEC needed to be named as a party to the litigation. The court held that because no other party to the litigation, including the Department of Interior, could adequately represent NTEC’s interest, the district court did not err in finding that NTEC must be joined to the lawsuit.

The court rejected the plaintiff’s and the US Government’s request to apply the “public rights” exception to exclude NTEC from the lawsuit. The court held that the plaintiff’s arguments “threatened NTEC’s legal entitlements.”

 “We are pleased with the well-reasoned decision of the court affirming Navajo self-determination,” said NTEC CEO Clark Moseley. “We are always concerned with outside groups or influences attempting to force their views on the Navajo. With this decision, NTEC can continue to provide economic opportunities for the Navajo people, secure funding for the operation of the Navajo Nation, and promote transitional energy opportunities.”

Information provided by Navajo Transitional Energy Co.

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