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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press, Published May 02 2012

Fighting Sioux legal bills reach $46K for taxpayers; 'We got nothing out of it,' lawmaker says

BISMARCK, N.D. — A dispute over whether North Dakota voters should decide if the University of North Dakota should keep its Fighting Sioux nickname cost taxpayers more than $46,000 in lawyers’ fees, records obtained by The Associated Press show.

The North Dakota House's Democratic leader, Rep. Jerry Kelsh, D-Fullerton, said Wednesday he believes the money has been wasted.

“I was really disappointed in the whole process,” Kelsh said. “We got nothing out of it.”

In March 2011, the North Dakota Legislature approved a law that required the university to use the logo and the Fighting Sioux nickname, which it has had for decades, despite the threat of NCAA sanctions.

When the NCAA declined to exempt UND from its policy discouraging schools’ use of American Indian nicknames and logos that it considers offensive, the Legislature repealed the pro-nickname law last November. Nickname backers responded by filing referendum petitions that demand a June 12 statewide vote on whether UND should be forced to keep the nickname and logo.

The Board of Higher Education, which supports dropping the nickname and logo, responded by filing a lawsuit against Secretary of State Al Jaeger asking the Supreme Court to declare the law unconstitutional and take the referendum off the ballot.

Legal bills show the Legislature paid almost $34,000 in fees to its lawyers, while Jaeger's attorneys cost more than $12,000. The public cost hadn't been disclosed before the AP compiled figures detailed in legal bills requested from the Legislature and Attorney General's office.

Jaeger and the Legislature had to hire private attorneys because Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem was representing the board.

The North Dakota Constitution gives the board broad powers to oversee the state's system of 11 public colleges. Board members argued that the law infringed on their authority.

In a decision last month, the state Supreme Court declined to stop the Fighting Sioux vote or rule on the board's arguments that its constitutional prerogatives were being trampled.

Kelsh said he had hoped the Legislature's attorneys would ask the Supreme Court to resolve questions about the scope of the Board of Higher Education's powers. Instead, they argued that the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction in the dispute.

If voters decide the University of North Dakota must keep the Fighting Sioux nickname, the legal fight will resume, at additional cost, Kelsh said.

“We spent (almost $34,000) and we didn't get anything done, and we'll spend another bunch of money if the thing goes back (to court),” Kelsh said.

Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, the House's majority leader, said he believed the expense was worth it. The Legislature had to defend its own interests in the lawsuit, he said.

“The Supreme Court had the call, and their decision was, let the people vote,” Carlson said. “I don't think any of this was wasted.”

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