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Whatever limitation the Arizona and Montana Enabling Acts or federal policy may have originally placed on state-court jurisdiction over Indian water rights, those limitations were removed by the McCarran Amendment, 43 U.S.C.S. § 666.
In Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, it was held that (1) the McCarran Amendment, which waived the sovereign immunity of the United States as to comprehensive state water rights adjudications, provides state courts with jurisdiction to adjudicate Indian water rights held in trust by the United States, and (2), in light of the federal policies underlying that Amendment, a suit brought by the United States in federal court claiming water rights on behalf of itself and certain Indian Tribes was properly dismissed in favor of concurrent adjudication reaching the same issues in a Colorado state court. The instant cases form a sequel to that decision. In No. 81-2188, the United States and various Indian Tribes brought actions in Federal District Court, seeking an adjudication of rights in certain streams in Montana. Subsequently, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation filed a petition in state court to adjudicate water rights in the same streams. Still later, the United States brought additional actions in Federal District Court, seeking to adjudicate its rights and the rights of various Indian Tribes in other Montana streams, and these rights also became involved in state proceedings. Motions to dismiss the federal actions were granted, the District Court relying in part on Colorado River. On consolidated appeals, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Montana might lack jurisdiction to adjudicate claims in state court because the Enabling Act admitting Montana to the Union and the provision of the Montana Constitution promulgated in response to that Act reserved "absolute jurisdiction and control" over Indian lands in Congress; that the State, however, might have acquired such jurisdiction under Pub. L. 280, which allowed a State to acquire certain jurisdiction over Indian affairs and to amend its constitution to remove any impediment to such jurisdiction in a constitutional or statutory declaimer; and that even if it were found that Montana had validly repealed the disclaimer language in its Constitution, the limited factual circumstances of Colorado River prevented its application to the Montana litigation. In No. 81-2147, various water rights claimants in Arizona filed petitions in state court to adjudicate rights in a number of river systems, and the United States was joined in each case both in its independent capacity and as trustee for various Indian Tribes. Thereafter, some of these Indian Tribes filed suits in Federal District Court, seeking, inter alia, federal determinations of their water rights. The District Court, relying on Colorado River, dismissed most of the actions, while staying one of them pending completion of the state proceedings. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Enabling Act under which Arizona was admitted to statehood and a provision of the Arizona Constitution, both of which were similar to the Montana Enabling Act and Constitution, disabled Arizona from adjudicating Indian water claims.
Did the appellate court err in reversing the district court’s decision to defer to the state proceedings?
Whatever limitation the Enabling Acts or federal policy may have originally placed on state-court jurisdiction over Indian water rights, those limitations were removed by the McCarran Amendment. That Amendment was designed to deal with the general problem arising out of the limitations that federal sovereign immunity placed on the States' ability to adjudicate water rights, and nowhere in the Amendment's text or legislative history is there any indication that Congress intended the efficacy of the remedy to differ from one State to another. To declare now that the holding in Colorado River applies only to the immunity of Indian water claims located in States without jurisdictional reservations would constitute a curious and unwarranted retreat from the rationale of Colorado River and would work the very mischief that the decision in that case sought to avoid.
Thus, where state courts have jurisdiction to adjudicate Indian water rights, concurrent federal suits brought by Indian Tribes, rather than by the United States, and seeking adjudication only of Indian water rights are subject to dismissal under the Colorado River doctrine. If, as appears to be the case here, the state courts have jurisdiction over the Indian water rights at issue, then the concurrent federal proceedings are likely to be duplicative and wasteful. Moreover, since a judgment by either court would ordinarily be res judicata in the other, the existence of the concurrent proceedings creates the potential for spawning an unseemly and destructive race to see which forum can resolve the same issues first -- a race contrary to the spirit of the McCarran Amendment and prejudicial to the possibility of reasoned decision-making in either forum. In these cases, assuming that the state adjudications are adequate to quantify the rights at issue in the federal suits, and taking into account the McCarran Amendment policies, the expertise and administrative machinery available to the state courts, the infancy of the federal suits, the general judicial bias against piecemeal litigation, and the convenience to the parties, the District Courts were correct in deferring to the state proceedings.