Dam suit dismissed: Judge cites lack of jurisdiction to make ruling

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A Montana district court judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by Lake County requesting that the state Department of Revenue tax the land surrounding the Selis Ksanka Qlispe Dam, citing a lack of jurisdiction necessary to issue a ruling.

In a decision filed on Jan. 27, Judge Blair Jones of the 22nd Judicial District in Columbus, stated that the state court system does not have jurisdiction to answer Lake County’s allegations that the land was never technically put in federal trust for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and therefore not exempt from taxes.

“The state of Montana has disclaimed jurisdiction over Indian lands,” wrote Jones, who was assigned the case to avoid the potential for a conflict of interest issues arising with the use of a local, taxpaying judge.

County officials filed the lawsuit in an attempt to recoup the revenue lost after the tribes assumed ownership of the dam in September 2015. The suit requested a judge order the Montana Department of Revenue reassess the dam property and send the tribes a tax bill. The land is currently considered by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to be held in trust for the tribes and tax exempt.

In addition to the jurisdictional dilemma, Jones wrote that in order for the court to consider the request, “Lake County must first secure a ruling that the BIA’s determination…is incorrect.”

Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker said that the dismissal did not come as a surprise and the county’s legal department is considering its options moving forward, which include filing an appeal in the federal court system.

“We knew there was a distinct possibility it would be tossed out of district court,” Decker said. “This is a federal court case, it needs to go to federal court.”

While an appeal would require additional staff resources and possible outside legal help, Decker said the county believes it could eventually win the case. He said the BIA and the state have not shown compelling proof that the land was properly placed in trust.

“We feel that there’s more to it,” Decker said.

For the county, which frequently struggles to collect revenue due to its large sections of tax-exempt tribal land, the case has broad implications. Aside from the dam, Decker said there are other properties that the county believes should be taxed as well.

“It’s not just strictly a dam related issue,” he said.

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