Key Experience

  • Handles litigation and appellate work for Indian tribes across the United States.
  • Obtained court approval for two historic, highly complex Indian water rights settlements.

Practice

Merrill Godfrey is a seasoned litigator who represents Indian tribes and tribal entities. He has successfully argued and negotiated high-stakes cases in areas such as breach of trust, gaming, oil and gas, water rights, contracts and elections. Merrill has extensive experience in litigation against the United States government and its executive agencies.

Representative Work

  • Represented AMERIND, a tribally owned federal corporation that provides insurance to tribes and tribal entities, in a dispute with a tribal housing authority to enforce contractual terms preserving tribal sovereign immunity and specifying jurisdiction for dispute resolution. Obtained an injunction against the tribal housing authority to prevent further litigation in tribal court in violation of the contract. Also argued successfully before the housing authority’s own tribal court of appeals, which issued a ruling upholding AMERIND’s tribal sovereign immunity.
  • Represented the Crow Tribe as lead trial counsel in litigation to approve a historic water settlement. The tribe had a federally approved water compact, but more than a hundred individual tribal members and others filed objections, which threatened to derail the necessary judicial approval of the compact in Montana Water Court. Obtained a judgment overruling the objections, and the compact was judicially approved and implemented. In a rare case where a tribal water settlement was litigated to conclusion, brought extensive experience in litigating technical subject matter and federal Indian law.
  • Advised the Gila Indian Community (the “Community”) in enforcing a wide variety of legal restrictions on unauthorized irrigation upstream of the Community, which has rights to the vast quantities of this irrigation. Due to various legal obstacles, these restrictions had gone mostly unenforced for more than a century. Developed sophisticated litigation tactics to obtain favorable court rulings on key issues, leveraging the rulings to pressure adverse water users to enter into enforceable settlements.
  • Assisted the Community in defending against broad constitutional attacks on the Indian Child Welfare Act (the “Act”), which protects native American children from abusive adoption practices. The Act represents the best of what can be achieved for tribes through federal legislation, and a successful constitutional attack could imperil many federal benefits that tribes receive. Brought litigation skills and experience speaking for tribal interests to bear on successful motions in Arizona federal district court to intervene and dismiss the case. The dismissal was later affirmed on appeal.
  • In a case involving interpretation of important federal statutes recognizing and preserving the Community’s authority over distribution of water on its reservation to non-Indian users, defeated an attempt to force emergency water delivery to water users who had breached their payment obligations. In the process, also obtained a settlement requiring full payment of the plaintiff’s outstanding six-figure debt to the Community.