State Lawmaker Who Sued the State Wants $150,000 for “Hardships” From Public Criticism, Also $62 Million in Attorneys Fees

Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla, and Paul Sorum, a former North Dakota gubernatorial candidate, held a news conference in Fargo to discuss a lawsuit they filed in Cass County District Court. The suit challenges the constitutionality of a statute that they argue gives away nearly $2 billion of the state's mineral rights and royalties under Lake Sakakawea. Kim Hyatt / The Forum

State Rep. Marvin Nelson, a Democrat from Rolla, was one of five plaintiffs who sued the state of North Dakota to prohibit the pay out of $187 million to royalty owners with rights under Lake Sakakawea.

Now Nelson and his fellow plaintiffs want the state to pay them more than $62 million in legal fees, including $150,000 for each plaintiff individually.

For those of you not up to speed on that issue, that lake is man-made, the accumulation of water resulting from the damming of the Missouri River. It is undisputed that the State of North Dakota owns the rights to minerals under the historic Missouri River channel (which is to say, where the river ran before the damming happened) but in recent years there has been a lengthy legal battle over the ownership of minerals under the rest of the lake.

The State of North Dakota, through the Board of University and School Lands, has tried to claim those minerals. The descendants of those who owned that property under the lake, but not under the river, say it’s theirs because when the federal government condemned the land for the purposes of flooding it they bought the surface right. The land owners were never compensated for the mineral rights.

Somehow, our state courts have interpreted the “gifts clause” as allowing state government to dole out public cash to private people and businesses in the name of economic development, but not allowing the payout of royalties to mineral rights owners who were denied them.

What has happened is that the mineral owners won their fight in court – that’s Wilkinson, et al. v. Board of University and School Lands of the State of N.D.but Nelson and his fellow litigants were successful with their suit in blocking payout to those mineral owners by invoking the “gifts clause” in North Dakota’s state constitution.

Somehow, our state courts have interpreted the “gifts clause” as allowing state government to dole out public cash to private people and businesses in the name of economic development, but not allowing the payout of royalties to mineral rights owners who were denied them.

Or buying gift cards for kids at a leadership academy.

But that is a matter for another post.

Rep. Nelson and the other plaintiffs – including Paul Sorum and Michael Coachman, two fringe candidates for statewide office in past election cycles, as well as gadfly Charles Tuttle, who ran for the U.S. House last cycle, and left wing activist Lisa Omlid – want a big pay day.

Not just for their lawyers, but for themselves as well.

A filing by the group’s lawyers earlier this month asks the court to “Award Plaintiffs $62,271,000.00 as reasonable attorneys’ fees and $18,145.21 costs incurred in this Action.” They also want an additional $750,000 to the plaintiffs who “risked their time, talent, and treasure” for the cause, as a filing in support of the motion describes it.

Rep. Nelson submitted an affidavit (read it in full below)supporting these filings as well. In it he describes himself as a hero who had to brave the cutting invective of the, ahem, Say Anything Blog to do the right thing.

Nelson also claims he received abusive phone calls (which, if they happened, are inexcusable) and that he was denied a committee assignment because of his participation in this suit:

Whoever heard of a politician who wants to be paid for having to endure criticism?

The other plaintiffs filed similar affidavits – you can read Sorum’s here, for example – but they all amount to the same thing. These folks want to get paid for filing a lawsuit against the State of North Dakota which denied payments to royalty owners who were improperly denied them by the government.

What a bunch of heroes.

I don’t think the plaintiffs, or their attorneys, are going to get what they’re asking for. But they’re probably going to get something.

Meanwhile, the royalty owners probably aren’t getting paid any time soon.

Discussion question: Do you think Rep. Nelson can ask the court for even more money because I criticized him again?

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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