WASHINGTON -- The Washington Redskins have won the latest round in a 16-year court battle against a group of American Indians, prevailing on a technicality that again skirts the issue of whether the team's nickname is racially offensive.
In a ruling dated June 25 and first circulated Thursday, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled that the youngest of the seven Native American plaintiffs waited too long after turning 18 to file the lawsuit that attempts to revoke the Redskins trademarks.
The lead plaintiff, Suzan Shown Harjo, said Friday the group will appeal.
"She ruled as we anticipated she would: for the loophole that would allow everyone to avoid the merits of the case," said Harjo, president of the Washington-based Morning Star Institute that advances Native American causes.
Harjo and her fellow plaintiffs have been working since 1992 to have the Redskins trademarks declared invalid. They initially won -- the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office panel canceled the trademarks in 1999 -- but Kollar-Kotelly overturned the ruling in 2003 in part because the suit was filed decades after the first Redskins trademark was issued in 1967.
The U.S. Court of Appeals then sent the case back to Kollar-Kotelly, noting that the youngest of the plaintiffs was only 1 year old in 1967 and therefore could not have taken legal action at the time.
But Kollar-Kotelly's new ruling rejects that possible argument. She wrote that the youngest plaintiff turned 18 in 1984 and therefore "waited almost eight years" after coming of age to join the lawsuit.
The judge did not address whether the Redskins name is offensive or racist. She wrote that her decision was not based on the larger issue of "the appropriateness of Native American imagery for team names."
The Redskins declined to comment, referring calls to attorney Bob Raskopf, who has been representing the team and the NFL in the case. Raskopf did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The case now heads back to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Should it agree that Harjo's group was too old to sue, she has a backup plan: A group of six American Indians ranging in age from 18 to 24 filed essentially the same lawsuit two years ago. That suit is on hold until Harjo's case is resolved.
Harjo therefore anticipates that one day, a court will have to decide once and for all whether the Redskins name is offensive.
"It's so ironic that they would like to get rid of this though the loophole of passage of time, when we're in our 16th year of litigation," Harjo said. "Unbelievable. If this [lawsuit] were a child, we would be preparing the child to go to college."