The U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling today in Salazar
v. Patchak, a gaming land case.
By an 8-1 vote, the justices ruled that the Interior Department can be sued for approving a land-into-trust application for the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, also known as the Gun Lake Tribe.
The court said the federal government cannot claim sovereign immunity as a defense under the Quiet Title Act.
The Quiet Title Act authorizes lawsuits that challenge the government's "right, title, or interest" in a property.
But it contains an exclusion for lawsuits involving "trust or restricted Indian lands.”
The court, however, ruled that the Quiet Title Act doesn't apply in the case because David Patchak, a non-Indian who filed the lawsuit, is not asserting his own interest in the property that the tribe is using for the Gun Lake Casino.
As a result, the lawsuit falls within the waiver of immunity found under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), the decision stated.
"[Patchak] asserts merely that the [Interior] Secretary’s decision to take land into trust violates a federal statute -- a garden-variety APA claim," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority.
The decision affects the tribe's casino, which opened in February 2011. Patchak has no direct connection to the tribe or the gaming site but claims the facility will increase crime and traffic and lead to other social and environmental problems.
Patchak's claims are the kinds that are supposed to be addressed during the land-into-trust process, the court noted, citing DOI regulations that were developed under the Section 465 of the Indian Reorganization Act. Therefore, he has standing to sue the government, Kagan wrote in the decision.
"As in this very case, the Secretary will typically acquire land with its eventual use in mind, after assessing potential conflicts that use might create," Kagan wrote.
"And so neighbors to the use (like Patchak) are reasonable -- indeed, predictable -- challengers of the Secretary’s decisions: Their interests, whether economic, environmental, or aesthetic, come within Section 465's regulatory ambit."
The majority's decision opinions the floodgates to litigation, Justice Sonia Sotomayor countered. As the lone dissenter, she believes Patchak's suit should be barred under the Quiet Title Act.
"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," Sotomayor wrote.
"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," she added.
Patchak's challenge will now return to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which revived the lawsuit shortly before the Gun Lake Casino opened to the public.
The case has not been decided on the merits but both Kagan, in the majority decision, and Sotomayor, in her dissent, said the outcome could effectively "divest" the federal government of its title to the gaming site.
Supreme Court Decision:
Salazar v. Patchak (June 18, 2012)
Oral Argument Transcript:
v. Patchak (April 23, 2012)
DC Circuit Decision:
v. Salazar (January 21, 2011)
Supreme Court debates challenge to Gun
Lake casino land (4/25)