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Published February 24 2012

North Dakota lawmakers hire lawyer for Fighting Sioux dispute

BISMARCK – The North Dakota Legislature plans to join the latest lawsuit over the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname.

A committee of legislative leaders voted 12-5 on Friday to hire an attorney after Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem asked the state Supreme Court last week to declare the law requiring UND to keep the nickname to be unconstitutional.

Stenehjem was asked to take the nickname issue to the high court by the state Board of Higher Education, which has sought to retire the nickname and contends the Legislature’s adoption of the law last April infringed on the board’s authority.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo said the case is “much more far-reaching” than the Fighting Sioux nickname. It challenges legislative authority and the Legislature’s role in addressing higher education issues, he said.

“If we sit on the sidelines, I think it is a huge mistake,” said Carlson, chairman of the Legislative Management committee and sponsor of the nickname law.

Bismarck attorney Patrick Durick is willing to represent the Legislature, Carlson said.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said he feels the Legislature was wrong to pass the law, but he supports hiring an attorney.

“I hope we lose, but I feel we need to be at the table,” he said. “Not to do so would allow some to argue that we lost because we were not able to make our case. I don’t want that excuse to have wings.”

The Legislative Council professional services budget has $250,000 that could be used for expenses, said Allen Knudson, legislative budget analyst and auditor. The fund is generally used to hire consultants for interim legislative committees, he said.

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, also recommended a bipartisan committee of two senators and two representatives be appointed to provide assistance to the attorney and oversight.

The motion passed with the approval of all 11 Republicans on the committee and one Democrat. The five who voted against were all Democrats.

Rep. Shirley Meyer, D-Dickinson, who opposed the motion, said legislators had less than 24 hours of notice for the meeting. She said she wanted more information, particularly about what the total cost is going to be for taxpayers.

Stenehjem said it was fine with him if the Legislature wants to get involved in the court case.

“What matters to me and all of us is that we make sure that we have a well briefed and competently argued case that is presented in the one place that is going to resolve it, and that’s the North Dakota Supreme Court,” he said.

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Grand Forks Herald reporter Chuck Haga contributed to this report

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.