Nicole Girten

(Daily Montanan) In a decision that could cost millions, a district court judge sided with the State of Montana after Lake County argued the state should be financially responsible for federal criminal oversight on the Flathead Reservation.

“It is unfortunate that, during a legislative session noteworthy for its unprecedented budget surplus, the parties were unable to reach an agreement to provide for the ongoing safety and security of the Flathead Indian reservation and Lake County,” the Nov. 9 order read. “Particularly as Lake County’s enforcement of the State’s criminal jurisdiction on the Flathead Indian Reservation has been described by Governor Gianforte as ‘a model of success.’”

This decision is the latest in a years-long fight between the county and the state over who foots the bill in the wake of a decades-old agreement between the state and the federal government removing the responsibility for federal crimes from federal agencies in the Flathead. Lake County officials have said the financial strain of this decision reached a “breaking point” last year. The judge said in her order the county’s likely best option forward would be to withdraw from the agreement.

Attorney for Lake County Lance Jasper told the Daily Montanan the county submitted their intent to withdraw from the agreement to the Governor’s office Monday and intends to appeal the court decision to the Montana Supreme Court.

In 1963, Montana took over criminal jurisdiction in the Flathead Reservation under Public Law 280, which passed a decade prior in Congress to allow for the transfer of criminal jurisdiction to states where reservations are located. The state is solely responsible for overseeing federal crimes there now, as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes has overseen misdemeanor offenses since 1994.

The Flathead Reservation is the only reservation in Montana under Public Law 280, with the majority of residents living in Lake County.

Lake County previously said it spends $4 million per year to comply with Public Law 280 and the tribes spend roughly the same amount to facilitate misdemeanor jurisdiction.

Lake County has previously signed resolutions to withdraw from the PL-280 agreement, with the first one signed in 2017, that it wanted to find a legislative solution. The county has said withdrawing would force the state to recreate the entire criminal justice system there, which the county estimated would cost the state $100 million.

The 2021 Legislature passed an appropriation of $1 towards Lake County for Public Law 280 services, which the judge previously described, and chose to reiterate, as “patently absurd.”

“The State argues Lake County has the power to withdraw its consent if it is dissatisfied with this appropriation and Lake County’s failure to do so has produced ‘a self-inflicted injury,’” the filing read. “As a practical matter, the State dares Lake County to act upon its threat.”

The 2023 Legislature passed a bill that would have allocated $5 million during the next two years to Lake County for administering Public Law 280, but it was vetoed by the governor’s office and failed to get the votes to override the veto.

Judge Amy Eddy said in her order statute says the state is only required to reimburse the county only “‘to the extent’ the legislature sees fit to appropriate funds.” She said since the county also has the option to withdraw consent in participation in the Public Law 280 agreement, the court “lacks the authority to grant the relief Lake County seeks.”

“If the financial burden Lake County bears is unacceptable, which by all accounts it appears to be, its remedy is to withdraw,” Eddy said.

The last resolution of intent to withdraw passed in May and was scheduled to be formally delivered to Gov. Greg Gianforte 30 days after the court issued a ruling outlining the state’s obligations.