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Obama Admin. Deems Part of Wyoming Tribal Land, Putting Hospital in Legal Battle

Imagine learning the town you live in suddenly becomes part of an Indian reservation, subjecting you to tribal courts and laws rather than the U.S. Constitution. That’s exactly what is happening in Riverton, Wyoming.

President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has thrown a hospital in Riverton, Wyoming (population 11,000), into an expensive and exhausting battle to extricate itself from the oversight of an American Indian tribal court. Riverton Memorial Hospital -- a non-Indian entity organized under the laws of the state of Delaware -- was recently sued by a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe for medical malpractice in the Shoshone and Arapaho Tribal Court, the court for the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Normally, American corporations are sued in state or federal courts, not tribal courts -- which are more or less the courts of a foreign nation. But the EPA has deemed a large swath of Wyoming “Indian Country,” including the town of Riverton. The hospital must now spend tens of thousands of dollars in a foreign court.

Not surprisingly, the tribal court has few rules and statutes and no published case law, rendering everything from basic procedural matters to substantive law to legal exposure unascertainable. Worse, because the tribal court impermissibly interprets its jurisdiction very broadly and imposes strict and onerous tribal exhaustion requirements, the hospital will have to litigate the medical malpractice case on the merits, and appeal to the tribal appellate court.

On May 27, the hospital sought to file a friend of the court brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit asserting that it offers a unique perspective on the actual impact of the EPA decision on a Riverton business in a way not possibly foreseen by the EPA.

This is not theoretical. This is happening right now to a hospital in a medical malpractice action. The hospital’s filing comes in a February 2014 lawsuit by the state of Wyoming and the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation challenging the December 2013 decision by the EPA to treat the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and the Northern Arapaho Tribe “in a Similar Manner as a State Under the Clean Air Act.”

The EPA’s decision, however, did not just give the tribes authority to enforce the Clean Air Act on the Wind River Indian Reservation. It also declared over a million acres in west-central Wyoming, including the town of Riverton, as part of that reservation, that is, “Indian country.”

On what possible basis, responded Wyoming, could the EPA make such a decision?