COEUR d’ALENE — Docks on tribal waters of the St. Joe River fall under tribal jurisdiction, according to a ruling by the Idaho Supreme Court.
In an opinion filed Friday, the state’s highest court laid to rest the tumult surrounding whether the Coeur d’Alene Tribe has regulatory authority over docks on the St. Joe River from the reservation boundary downstream of the Highway 3 bridge in St. Maries.
The state Supreme Court in a two-part opinion overturned an earlier ruling that allowed the Coeur d’Alene Tribe to collect a civil penalty from non-tribal members Kenneth and Donna Johnson, who own land on the banks of the St. Joe River inside the boundaries of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe Reservation.
However, the court gave the tribe authority to remove encroachments in its waters.
The ruling comes two years after the Johnsons appealed to the Supreme Court an earlier ruling by a Benewah County district court recognizing a tribal judgment for $17,400 against the couple because their docks and pilings trespassed on tribal waters.
The Johnsons argued the district court ruling was based on a premise that was later amended. They questioned the tribal court’s authority to fine them and contended their dock was above the river’s high water mark established in 1873 before the Post Falls Dam raised the St. Joe’s elevation.
Supreme Court Justice Joel Horton agreed that the earlier ruling applied by the Benewah court was amended and the latest rendering did not grant authority to the tribe to collect the $17,400 civil penalty.
But Horton and fellow justices also agreed that the tribe had jurisdiction over the Johnsons’ dock and pilings.
Although tribes usually don’t have jurisdiction over non-tribal members, “A tribe may retain inherent power to exercise civil authority over the conduct of non-Indians on fee lands within its reservation when the conduct threatens or has some direct effect on the political integrity, economic security, or the health or welfare of the tribe,” according to a 9th Circuit Court ruling that Horton applied.
Because the Tribe owns the riverbed, it has civil authority over encroachments such as docks and pilings, Horton wrote.
“The Johnsons have failed to show that the tribe does not have jurisdiction over the bed of the St. Joe River adjoining their property,” Horton wrote.
The couple failed to show they had title to the land between the old and the new high water marks, which belongs to the tribe as part of the riverbed, Horton wrote.
“We presume the lands continue to be held by the United States in trust for the benefit of the Tribe,” he wrote.
The docks and pilings, Horton wrote, interfere in the Tribe’s ability to manage the waterway.
“The tribe’s status as landowning is enough to support regulatory jurisdiction,” Horton wrote.
In a press release, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe lauded the high court’s finding.
“This case sets a precedent,” Chairman Chief Allan said, “that the property rights of the Tribe must be respected.”
The latest decision, Allan said, shows that the high water mark resulting from the Post Falls Dam has no bearing on the tribe’s river property.
“The case clears up any confusion regarding whether the Post Falls Dam has an impact on Tribal authority — it doesn’t,” Allen said in the press release. “The Court makes it clear that Tribal waters include all submerged lands within the boundaries of the reservation up to the ordinary high-water mark.”
Attorney Norm Semanko, who represented the Johnsons, said their dock had been removed during the proceedings. Kenneth Johnson passed away, but his wife was relieved to not have to pay the fine, Semanko said in an email.
Although the state Supreme Court upheld the tribe’s authority to remove the Johnsons’ dock, the latest opinion opened the door to future challenges to the tribe’s dock permit program, Semanko said.
“...If a riverfront landowner proves that any portion of the submerged lands in the river was alienated by the United States — patented, sold or otherwise conveyed to someone else — the tribe would have no basis to require a permit for a dock or other structure situated over the submerged lands in question,” he said.