Judge issues stern message to federal government in submerged lands dispute
May 6, 2016
(Anchorage, AK) – A federal district court this week found the United States acted in bad faith in a lawsuit over the State’s ownership of a navigable river.
According to Attorney General Craig Richards, “this decision sends a strong message to the federal government that they need to come to the table and work with the State. Ignoring existing law and delaying decisions to the last moment simply increases tensions. It does nothing to work towards a resolution.”
Late Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that the U.S. Department of Justice advanced frivolous legal arguments in litigation over the ownership of lands beneath the Mosquito Fork, a tributary of the Fortymile River. On that basis, Gleason granted the State’s motion for attorney’s fees.
“We anticipate that the federal government will follow the court’s ruling and work with the State to expeditiously resolve other disputes concerning the ownership of submerged lands in the future,” said Brent Goodrum, director of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Mining, Land & Water.
When the public seeks to use submerged lands for recreation, hunting and fishing, or economic development, they need to know who owns the land in order to know what laws they have to follow.
Until last summer, the federal government had claimed it owned the land beneath the Mosquito Fork and not the State. For many years the dispute created confusion and hardship for Alaskans seeking to use and navigate the river. The mining community was particularly concerned because miners that had been granted state mining claims were questioning the validity of their claims. At the urging of many Alaskans, the State sued the federal government in 2012 to resolve the longstanding dispute.
After years of preparation and shortly before the case was to go to trial, the federal government in July 2015 finally abandoned any legal claim to the Mosquito Fork. In asking the court for attorney’s fees, the State’s attorneys argued that the federal government had run up the State’s costs in bad faith and made legal arguments that had already been rejected by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court as far back as 1931.
In her 22-page ruling, Judge Gleason stated that the federal government’s “refusal to follow Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit precedent greatly increased the length of this case and its burden to the State.” The Department of Law estimates that its attorney’s fees in preparing for trial are more than $750,000. The Court will determine the amount of attorney’s fees owed to the State after additional briefing from both parties.
Unlike the award of costs, which are minimal and routinely paid by the losing party, it is rare for a judge to order the federal government to pay attorney’s fees. In this case, the State had to show that the federal government acted in bad faith.
To avoid costly litigation in the future, the State has engaged in meetings with the federal government to try and resolve disputes over navigable waters and submerged lands through recordable disclaimers of interest on the front end. A recordable disclaimer of interest results in the federal government abandoning any legal claim to the land. The State is hopeful that these meetings will lead to quicker resolution on these issues.
For more information, please contact Brent Goodrum, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, 269-8625, firstname.lastname@example.org or Mike Schechter, Alaska Department of Law, 269-4179, email@example.com.
- View the court’s order - PDF(123K).
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