Supremes Support Lawsuit Against Interior’s Land-into-Trust Authority
In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that an individual has standing to sue the Interior Department for taking land into trust for the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, also known as the Gun Lake Tribe, to build a casino in Wayland County, Michigan.
The high court said the federal government cannot claim sovereign immunity under the Quiet Title Act (QTA), which until now protected land taken into trust for Indian nations.
The Gun Lake Casino opened in February 2011. David Patchak, an individual who lives near the casino, claimed Interior did not have the authority to take land into trust for Gun Lake because the tribe was not “under federal jurisdiction” in 1934 when the Indian Reorganization Act was passed. A federal district court judge dismissed Patchak’s lawsuit on procedural grounds, saying he did not have standing to challenge the Quiet Title Act. The high court’s ruling means the case will go back to the district court for a trial on the merits of Patchak’s arguments.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only dissenting opinion. She wrote, “The Court’s opinion sanctions an end-run around these vital limitations on the Government’s waiver of sovereign immunity. After today, any person may sue under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) to divest the Federal Government of title to and possession of land held in trust for Indian tribes—relief expressly forbidden by the QTA—so long as the complaint does not assert a personal interest in the land. That outcome cannot be squared with the APA’s express admonition that it confers no ‘authority to grant relief if any other statute that grants consent to suit expressly or impliedly forbids the relief which is sought.’ … The Court’s holding not only creates perverse incentives for private litigants, but also exposes the Government’s ownership of land to costly and prolonged challenges.”
Indian country observers would widely like to see friends in Congress use this decision as a reason to fervently push a Carcieri legislative fix. But so far main allies have been silent on their strategy post-Patchak. The office of Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said he had "no comment" in the immediate aftermath of the decision. Akaka has been unsuccessfully pushing a Carcieri fix for years now, and some tribal officials believe he should be doing more, especially given this difficult decision.
“The Court has lowered the bar so far in terms of standing to sue, that it’s basically encouraging lawsuits against tribes from here on out. Or at least until Congress can fix the situation. You would think that if anyone would have the standing to sue about their way of life being destroyed, it would be us,” Chris Stearns, a Navajo attorney with Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker and Chairman of the Seattle Human Rights Commission said immediately following the ruling.
Rob Capriccioso contributed to this report.
Expanded story to follow.