FARGO - A group of plaintiffs that includes a North Dakota lawmaker and a former gubernatorial candidate has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a statute that, the plaintiffs argue, attempts to give away nearly $2 billion of the state's mineral rights and royalties.
Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla, and Paul Sorum, who ran for governor most recently in 2016 as a Republican, held a news conference in Fargo Monday, March 19, to discuss the suit that was filed in January in Cass County District Court.
The lawsuit concerns the rights to 108,000 acres of minerals underneath Lake Sakakawea, a reservoir created about 60 years ago when the Garrison Dam was built across the Missouri River. The dam changed the original high water mark of the river.
The lawsuit alleges that a statute, created by the passage of Senate Bill 2134 in the last legislative session, unconstitutionally gives private persons the rights to minerals now below the lake's high water mark.
Nelson said it's unconstitutional for the Legislature to give away state property to private persons, but Senate Bill 2134 creates a special set of rules and conditions for one segment of the Missouri River.
Sorum said the court is not being asked to declare who owns any particular minerals, he said, but whether the statute is unconstitutional.
"When the Legislature is cutting budgets as deeply as they have, we think it's important that they keep these taxpayer assets in place and not give them away," Sorum said.
Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, introduced Senate Bill 2134, and he said "this is a landowners rights issue."
While the lawsuit claims the state owns all minerals under Lake Sakakawea, Armstrong said the minerals have been owned by private property owners for generations. He said the lawsuit attempts to take away ownership from families, farmers and ranchers without any due process.
Other plaintiffs listed in the lawsuit are Michael Coachman, Charles Tuttle and Lisa Marie Omlid. Defendants named along with the state are the state Board of University and School Lands, North Dakota Industrial Commission, Gov. Doug Burgum and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.
Attorney Matthew Sagsveen, who is representing the state in this case, did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Judge John Irby will consider the defendants' request to dismiss the case at a hearing Wednesday, April 11.