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North Dakota seeks dismissal of UND nickname lawsuit

MINOT, N.D. - North Dakota State Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Thursday that he will ask the court to dismiss a lawsuit filed against the state Board of Higher Education over the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux nickname.

Nickname supporters from the Spirit Lake reservation filed suit to prevent the board from shortening the deadline for the nickname from Nov. 30, 2010, to Oct. 31 of this year. Because that deadline had passed, the board could have retired the nickname at its meeting Thursday at Minot State University.

Instead, it made no decision because District Judge Michael G. Sturdevant in Bottineau had issued a temporary restraining order forbidding the board from retiring the nickname until a hearing at 10 a.m. Dec. 9 in Devils Lake.

The hearing will determine whether the lawsuit is dismissed, as the defendants want, or the restraining order is extended until Nov. 30, 2010, as the plaintiffs want. It would be the first chance for the state to defend itself because the judge issued the restraining order without informing the state. The plaintiffs had argued that there was a possibility the board could change the nickname before the lawsuit got to court and the secrecy was necessary.

Stenehjem held a closed-door session with the board Thursday. He said he'll have a legal response Monday.

Asked by reporters if he didn't feel conflicted being a longtime nickname supporter fighting a lawsuit by other supporters, Stenehjem said that while he's a supporter, there is a more important constitutional issue at stake. The board has the right to make decisions concerning the operation of state universities, he said.

Pat Morley, the Grand Forks attorney representing the plaintiffs, said Thursday that the judge who issued the restraining order will also be hearing the case in Devils Lake.

The plaintiffs' arguments rest on Morley's interpretation of the settlement between the state and the NCAA, which considers American Indian nicknames offensive. The settlement allows UND until Nov. 30, 2010, to win support for the nickname from the state's two Sioux tribes.