Boise--The Idaho House of Representatives passed a resolution Monday advising the state’s Constitutional Defense Fund to reimburse two Owyhee County ranchers over a half million dollars in legal fees.
A decade ago ranchers Paul Nettleton and Tim Lowry's victory in the Idaho Supreme Court preserved Idaho's state’s sovereignty over stock water rights on the range.
Speaker of the House Scott Bedke of Oakley said the two ranchers, stood alone against the federal government's claim that the Feds held water rights on BLM land.
After a prolonged legal battle spanning a decade, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled with them, saying that the ranchers, not the federal government had put the water to beneficial use — a key part of state water rights. But in a surprising twist, the court also ruled that because the federal government presented a legitimate case, it did not have to pay the ranchers’ legal fees.
Majority Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude of Nampa rose in favor of the proclamation saying the State of Idaho is forever indebted to the ranchers.
“These ranchers were brave enough to stand up to the federal government,” said Vander Woude, “They’ve gone into debt, at the risk of their ranches all for the state of Idaho.”
Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, questioned the proclamation and legal fee reimbursement and then the constitutionality of the measure warning it could open the door to future claims.
“I'm troubled they needed help, but we might be stepping out in a place where we would not have to go for funding the Constitutional Defense Fund,” Bell said.
The proclamation now goes to the full Senate for consideration.
In the late 1990s, the Bureau of Land Management hauled the two ranchers into state court to determine who owned the water rights on grazing allotments traditionally used by ranchers since the late 1800s.
Lowry and Nettleton fought the BLM’s challenge of their stock water rights during the Snake River Basin Adjudication when the US government filed overlapping claims to the ranchers’ stock water rights.
While the decade-long legal fight was successful, ending in 2007, the rancher's legal defense cost more than a million dollars when they were denied reimbursement of legal fees. The ranchers have negotiated their legal fees down to $300,000 apiece and have secured 20-year loans to cover their bill.
House Leaders decided on the proclamation because of a 1994 state law that says that Idaho cannot pay for private legal fees. The exception, in this case, is that the ranchers preserved State control over its water and they deserved reimbursement.
Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane says because the House of Representatives is not passing a law to pay legal fees, it's not against the law. “A proclamation does not meet those legal requirements to become law. As a policy pronouncement of the House, no constitutional issues are raised,” said Kane.