U.S. Supreme Court: Neighbors Can Challenge Tribal Land-Into-Trust Rulings
Friday, June 22, 2012
In an 8-1 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that a neighboring landowner can sue to reverse the decision of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to take land into trust on behalf of a Michigan tribe that wants to build a casino on the parcel. In Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottowatami Indians v. Patchak, Nos. 11-246, 11-247 (June 18, 2012), Justice Elena Kagan rejected two arguments by the tribe and the federal government: that sovereign immunity barred the suit by Jeffrey Patchak, and that he lacked standing to sue.
The case now returns to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to decide Patchak’s underlying claim that the tribe (usually referred to as the “Gun Lake Band”) cannot receive trust lands because it was not under federal jurisdiction when the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), 25 U.S.C. § 465, was adopted in 1934. The Gun Lake Band was first recognized as a tribe in 1998.
The Gun Lake Band has been mired in litigation since it proposed in 2001 to build a casino on the 147-acre site near Kalamazoo in southwestern Michigan. After Interior Secretary Gale Norton agreed in 2005 that the federal government should take the parcel into trust under the IRA on behalf of the tribe, local residents challenged the action for alleged failure to comply with environmental law requirements. Shortly after that lawsuit was rejected, the Supreme Court decided in Carcieri v. Salazar, 55 U.S. 379 (2009), that the government can take land into trust only on behalf of tribes that were recognized and under federal jurisdiction at the time the IRA was enacted. Patchak, who lives near the proposed casino site, promptly sued to press the claim that the Gun Lake Band was not eligible for trust lands under the IRA.
Both the federal government and the tribe argued that Patchak’s lawsuit was barred by the federal Quiet Title Act, 86 Stat. 1176, which provides an exclusive remedy for parties claiming lands that the government also claims includes an exception when the claim is for tribal lands. The defendants argued that by excluding claims of tribal land from its waiver of sovereign immunity, the Quiet Title Act effectively retained federal sovereign immunity from claims like Patchak’s. The Supreme Court rejected that argument, pointing out that Patchak does not himself claim the 147-acre parcel, but simply challenges the Secretary’s action as illegal. The only relief he seeks is a voiding of the land-into-trust ruling, not title to the land for himself. Accordingly, the Court ruled, Patchak can bring his lawsuit under the general waiver of sovereign immunity in the federal Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 701.
The Justices also rejected the defense that Patchak lacks standing to bring his claim. Because land-into-trust actions are taken to assist economic development for the tribes involved, the Court ruled, the Secretary’s decision directly implicates the land use concerns – “whether economic, environmental or aesthetic” – that Patchak asserted in his challenge.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, objecting that the Court’s decision will expose government land acquisitions to “costly and prolonged challenges” in court.