Court hears arguments in wild rice ‘rights of nature’ lawsuit

By: - December 22, 2021 1:10 pm

People opposed to Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline trekked through a marsh to a site where the pipeline will cross the Mississippi River on June 7, 2021. Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer.

The White Earth Tribal Court heard arguments in a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against the state of Minnesota Monday, which centers on the tribe’s allegations that the state violated the rights of wild rice during construction of Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline.

The case raises complex legal questions and has garnered international attention as part of the “rights of nature” movement. Here are answers to your questions about the lawsuit. 

How did this case begin?

In August, the White Earth Nation sued the state in tribal court, arguing the Department of Natural Resource’s decision to allow Enbridge to remove nearly 5 billion gallons of water during Line 3 construction violated the rights of wild rice, which is a sacred food for the Ojibwe, and the rights of the tribe.

Soon after, the DNR sued the tribe in federal court, arguing the tribal court didn’t have jurisdiction over the case. A federal judge dismissed the DNR’s suit, and the agency appealed. 

What is the court deciding?

Both the federal appeals case and the tribal court case are ongoing. The federal appeals court heard arguments in the case in mid-December and will make a decision about whether the DNR can be sued in tribal court.

Separately, the tribal court is considering the allegations in the August lawsuit that the DNR’s decision to issue the dewatering permit to Enbridge harmed wild rice in Lower Rice Lake. The tribal court judge said Monday that they would issue an order as soon as possible, but the exact date is uncertain.

What arguments are each side making?

The state isn’t taking a position on the tribe’s claims, instead arguing that the suit in tribal court should be thrown out entirely for a couple reasons: First, that the DNR and its officials have sovereign immunity and cannot be sued in tribal court; and second, that the court doesn’t have subject matter jurisdiction. 

The tribe says there are exceptions to sovereign immunity that allow state officials to be sued in tribal court. Since the state officials took actions that affected the well-being of the tribe, they can be sued in tribal court, said attorney Joe Plumer, who is representing White Earth in the case.

When a judge asked Plumer to explain exactly how the tribe has been affected, Plumer said they don’t know the full scope of potential consequences yet. They’re concerned there may be aquifer breaches or spills along the route that haven’t been discovered, he said.

Plumer said the court should deny the state’s immunity argument so they can move on to fact-finding as part of the legal process and, eventually, determine appropriate remedies.

“We’ve not addressed anything other than the subject matter jurisdiction and the immunity that the state is raising. We have not had an opportunity to develop the facts,” Plumer said.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.