District Court for Western Dist. of WA Dismisses Tribe’s Suit Against Seattle City Light

Troutman Pepper

Troutman Pepper

On December 3, 2021, Judge Barbara Rothstein of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington dismissed a suit brought by the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, finding that the district court lacks jurisdiction over the matter.

The Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, a federally-recognized tribe also known as the Sah-Ku-Me-Hu, filed a complaint against the City of Seattle and its public electricity utility, Seattle City Light in July.  The Tribe’s complaint alleged that the city’s operation of Gorge Dam, part of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, violates the constitutions of Washington and the United States, as well as two 19th century federal laws that established the territories of Washington and Oregon.  The Tribe argued that Seattle violated the two Establishing Acts, which prohibited dams without passageways for fish.  Seattle filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the Establishing Acts were repealed by Congress and “present no cognizable legal theory for relief.”

Judge Rothstein dismissed the Tribe’s complaint on the threshold issue of jurisdiction.  Because the Skagit River Project is licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (Commission or FERC), it is governed by the Federal Power Act, which provides that “any party aggrieved by a Commission order must seek a review in the U.S. courts of appeals.”  Judge Rothstein concluded that, because the Tribe’s complaint “inhere[s] in the controversy concerning an explicit provision of the 1995 FERC relicensing order, the court need not—indeed, lacks jurisdiction to—determine whether any of plaintiff’s claims would succeed on the merits.”

Following Judge Rothstein’s decision, the Tribe issued a statement that it plans to appeal her decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  The Tribe is also a participant in Seattle’s ongoing relicensing proceeding before FERC.

The Court’s order granting defendants’ motion to dismiss is available here.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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