The Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians owns and operates the Gun Lake Casino in Wayland, Michigan. Photo: Gun Lake Casino
Legislation | Litigation

Federal appeals court backs Gun Lake Tribe land-into-trust law

Congress has the power to ratify land-into-trust acquisitions and put an end to litigation, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday in a long-running case involving a Michigan tribe's casino.

In a unanimous decision, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the legality of S.1603, the Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act. The law confirmed that land placed in trust for the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, also known as the Gun Lake Tribe, is Indian Country, putting an end to a long-running lawsuit that claimed otherwise.

"Congress made a considered determination to ratify the Department of the Interior’s decision to take the Bradley Property into trust for the Gun Lake Tribe, and further to remove any potential impediments to the finality of that decision," Judge Robert L. Wilkins wrote for the court.

The ruling came just two months after oral arguments so the D.C. Circuit clearly was not conflicted on the matter. But the decision marks the first time that a land-into-trust law has been upheld in the court system.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Oral Arguments in David Patchak v. Sally Jewell May 13, 2016

Based on the success of S.1603, other tribes are asking Congress for similar legislation. H.R.5486, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians Land Reaffirmation Act, would protect the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama, whose leaders have faced a series of lawsuits challenging the status of their reservation.

The reaffirmation approach, however, is not without controversy. An attempt to include similar language in an appropriations bill was killed on the floor of the House on Tuesday due to objections from key Republicans.

The provision was otherwise known as a "partial" fix to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar. It would have merely confirmed the validity of past land-into-trust acquisitions but it would not offer a solution going forward.

The Carcieri decision restricts the land-into-trust process to tribes that were "under federal jurisdiction" in 1934. David Patchak had hoped to use the case against the Gun Lake Tribe, whose federal recognition wasn't formalized until 1999.

A ruling was never reached because the Bureau of Indian Affairs went ahead and placed 147-acre Bradley Property in trust. That led to more appeals, culminating in the Supreme Court's decision in Salazar v. Patchak, which determined that Patchak could still continue pursuing his case but did not say anything about the validity of his Carcieri claim.

Congress stepped into the debate by passing S.1603 five years after Patchak first filed his complaint. The bill was signed into law by President Barack Obama on September 26, 2014.

The Bradley Property is home to the Gun Lake Casino. The tribe has embarked on a $76 million expansion of the facility, which opened in February 2011.

D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Patchak v. Jewell (July 15, 2016)

U.S. Supreme Court Decision:
Salazar v. Patchak (June 18, 2012)

Prior D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Patchak v. Salazar (January 21, 2011)

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