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Maine tribe loses sovereignty dispute with state
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Filed Under: Law

The state of Maine can enforce its employment laws on the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians, a divided federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.

By a 2-1 vote, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals said the tribe has to answer to an employment dispute before the Maine Human Rights Commission. The majority said Congress abrogated the tribe's sovereign immunity through a land claim settlement act that subjected Maine Indians to state laws.

The Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 didn't cite the Aroostook Band by name. It was written to settle the land claims of the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and to grant them federal recognition.

But the 1st Circuit pointed to a critical section in the act that covers "all" Maine tribes. Even though Congress, in 1991, enacted a law specific to the Aroostook Band that didn't contain a similar provision, the court said the 1980 act applies.

"Whatever powers are included within 'inherent tribal authority,' Congress may abrogate those powers by statute," Judge Sandra L. Lynch wrote for the majority.

The decision marks a significant turnaround for the Aroostook Band. Just a little over two years ago, the court had determined that the tribe's sovereignty was at risk before the Maine commission.

"An Indian tribe that is unlawfully called to answer before a state agency may suffer both practical harms and intrusions upon its sovereignty," Judge Kermit Lipez wrote in the unanimous decision on April 13, 2005.

But an unrelated event on July 14, 2005, changed everything. That was the day when Rhode Island state troopers raided the Narragansett Reservation, setting up a major sovereignty dispute that reverberates today.

The Narragansett Tribe sued the state, arguing that the raid violated its sovereignty. But after hearing the case twice, an en banc panel of the 1st Circuit said the state was within its rights, citing a land claim settlement act that subjected the tribe to state laws.

The decision set precedent for all tribes in the 1st Circuit -- Rhode Island, Maine and Massachusetts. That meant the Aroostook Band's favorable ruling from April 13, 2005, was effectively overturned even though it wasn't part of the Narragansett case.

But like the Narragansett case, the Micmac case isn't likely to end soon, due to the divided decision. Lipez, who wrote the April 2005 opinion that protected the tribe's sovereignty, authored a dissent yesterday in which he said he would do it again.

Lipez disagreed with the majority's decision to place the tribe under the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. He said the law was superseded by the Aroostook Band of Micmacs Settlement Act of 1991

"In my view," he wrote, "MICSA no longer governs the relationship between the Band and the State."

The conflicting views mean the case is likely to be heard by an en banc panel of the 1st Circuit, which has been busy with Indian cases. In January, the full court heard a land-into-trust dispute affecting the ability of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take land into trust for the Narragansett Tribe.

The case has the potential to could affect all Maine and Massachusetts tribes. Among other claims, Rhode Island argues that tribes who weren't federally recognized as of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 cannot acquire new land.

The earliest New England tribal recognition came in 1980, with the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. The most recent is the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts, whose recognition will becomes final next month.

Get the Decision:
Aroostook Band v. Ryan (April 17, 2007)

Earlier Decisions:
Aroostook Band v. Ryan (December 5, 2005) } Aroostook Band v. Maine (April 13, 2005)

Related Decisions:
Narragansett Tribe v. Rhode Island (May 24, 2006)

Relevant Laws:
Maine Tribal Settlement Acts

Relevant Links:
Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission - http://www.mitsc.org

Related Stories:
Appeals court hears land-into-trust dispute (01/10)
Appeals court to hear land-into-trust case (01/08)
Appeals court to rehear land-into-trust dispute (12/07)
High court rejects state raid, land claim (11/28)
Aroostook Band closes clinic and lays off employees (09/08)
Micmac chief suspended for not showing up to work (07/07)
Court subjects Narragansett Tribe to all state laws (05/25)
Appeals court hears tribal-state sovereignty dispute (12/07)
Judge: Micmac Band free from state jurisdiction (12/06)
Maine tribes mark 25 years since settlement (10/11)
Maine tribe wins key ruling on state jurisdiction (04/15)
Editorial: Maine must repair relationship with tribes (12/03)
Editorial: Maine tribes need more attention (11/22)
Forum examines legacy of tribal settlement acts (04/02)
EPA allows state jurisdiction over Maine tribal lands (12/3)
Tribes ordered to release some documents (5/2)
Maine dispute heads back to court (2/12)
Go directly to jail, do not collect sovereignty... (2/7)
Tribal-environmental summit in Maine (1/24)
Maine leaders continue fight (12/4)
Leaders pledge support of Maine tribes (11/17)
Tribal leaders ordered arrested (11/10)
Water dispute heads to court (05/30)

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