AG won’t issue opinion on Fighting Sioux nickname

By Dale Wetzel
Bismarck, North Dakota (AP)

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem declined a request to issue a legal opinion about the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname, saying a new law that requires UND to keep the name could end up in court.

Stenehjem said he could take up the request later if the state Board of Higher Education declines to challenge the new law, which takes effect Aug. 1.

State Rep. Lonny Winrich, D-Grand Forks, in a letter signed by nine other lawmakers, had asked Stenehjem whether the law violates the North Dakota Constitution by interfering with the authority of the state Board of Higher Education to govern the state’s public colleges.

Stenehjem said that Pat Seaworth, the state university system’s top lawyer, has told him it is likely that board members will want him to brief them on their legal options at the panel’s June meeting in Minot.

“It seems to me, at least for now, that the appropriate thing is to not issue this opinion (and) wait and see what the board does,” Stenehjem said.

Should the board decline to challenge the law in court, “it may be well proper for me to issue an opinion, in answer to the question the legislators asked,” Stenehjem said.

The NCAA considers the Fighting Sioux nickname and the school’s logo, which depicts the profile of an American Indian warrior, to be hostile to American Indians. UND had made plans to retire both in August to avoid NCAA sanctions.

However, the Legislature halted those plans by overwhelmingly approving a law that requires UND to keep the nickname and logo.

At a Board of Higher Education meeting in Bismarck last week, the board’s president, Jon Backes, asked board members to consider whether they wanted to go to court to invalidate the law.

Backes said he expected to raise the issue again at the board’s June 16 meeting at Minot State University.

Winrich said he believed Stenehjem’s explanation of his reasons for declining to issue a legal opinion was understandable.

“We’ll see what the board does,” Winrich said. “Frankly, I don’t expect the board to take action, but they may do that. I think it’s going to end up with an attorney general’s opinion eventually.”