Arizona v. California III: Res Judicata, Collateral Estoppel, and Indian Water Rights

Comment By: John J. Goodman; originally appeared in JNREL Vol. 19, No. 2

By: Katie Shoultz, Staff Member

In Arizona v. California, 530 U.S. 392 (2000), the fundamental issue was whether the Quechan Tribe's claims for compensation and water rights for 25,000 acres of reservation boundary land were precluded by reasons of Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546 (1963) (hereinafter Arizona I) or by a 1983 consent judgment issued by the U.S. Claims Court (hereinafter Arizona II). In Arizona I, the Court ruled with respect to the priorities of water rights but did not decide the rights of the parties in areas where the boundaries of the reservation remained in dispute. In Arizona II, the federal government and the Quechan Tribe reached a settlement without the boundary land water rights issue being addressed. In the latest case, Arizona III, the Supreme Court ruled that the states' preclusion argument was barred as it was not brought forth in a timely fashion. The Court also ruled that the Quechans' acceptance of the earlier settlement did not inherently contain an issue preclusion.

Arizona III details the longstanding legal saga between the Quechan Tribe and several western states regarding the dispute over ownership of the land with the associated water rights and examines the implications of the Court's decision in regards to Native American natural resources law. Even though the question of ownership remains unanswered since 1893 despite three court cases, three Department of Interior declarations, and a cash settlement of $15 million by the federal government, the implications of this decision are likely far-reaching.

First, the concept of res judicata is applied as a claim preclusion in this case, but it also could be viewed as a means by which judicial administration remains manageable. Second, even though the monetary settlement eliminated the Quechan Tribe's claim against the federal government, it did not eliminate the issue of water rights. This finding may prompt other tribes to review their settlements for unresolved issues. Third, the Court's decision to ignore a portion of the Indian Claims Commission's process may encourage other tribes to view such settlements as potentially non-binding and seek alternative remedies. Finally, the Court's ruling of res judicata may allow for an unequal approach to the different tribes.

Although the case involved important civil procedure concepts, the economic impact is certainly of great importance. Because the case was remanded back to the Special Master to determine the water rights, the Quechan Tribe may successfully establish rights to 25.6 billion gallons of water from the Colorado River on an annual basis. This water can then be sold in a bidding process. As such, enormous economic ramifications can result from the final judgment.