The Bay Mills Indian Community owns and operates the Bay Mills Resort & Casino in Brimley, Michigan. A second facility, known as the Kings Club Casino, is located nearby and is considered the first full-fledged Indian gaming facility in the United States. Photo: Bay Mills Casinos.

Bay Mills Indian Community wins ruling in long-running gaming case

A long-running dispute between the Bay Mills Indian Community and the state of Michigan has been revived, giving the tribe a win in a casino controversy that once went to the nation's highest court.

In a per curiam decision, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday said a federal judge resolved the case without addressing some key issues. The development means the tribe can continue to pursue a casino on an off-reservation property that was acquired through a land claim settlement.

"Bay Mills seeks to operate a casino on a parcel of land in Vanderbilt, Michigan, located in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, roughly 125 miles south of Bay Mills’ reservation in the Upper Peninsula," the eight-page ruling stated.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: 6th Circuit Court of Appeals - Bay Mills Indian Community v. Whitmer - October 17, 2019

The location of the parcel has been a major issue throughout the litigation, which began when the tribe surprised just about everyone by opening a modest casino in Vanderbilt nine years ago. Though it was forced to close during a prior stage of the case, the project sets a precedent that could lead to the proliferation of similar facilities just about anywhere in Michigan, according to the state.

"You could buy a piece of land here, across the street from the courthouse .. and you could operate a casino," Judge Joan L. Larsen said of the state's alarmist position during oral arguments on October 17, 2019, which incidentally marked the 31st anniversary of the day the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act became effective.

"Why are they wrong?" Larsen asked.

The tribe will get another at shot at proving the state is wrong, thanks to the 6th Circuit's decision. With its action on Friday, the court vacated, or erased from the record, a ruling in which the judge had sided with Michigan.

But the tribe is far from victory. As the lawsuit returns to a lower court, the parties are being asked to argue over a couple of sentences in Michigan Indian Land Claims Settlement Act and how they affect the potential casino.

"We do not intend to suggest a proper understanding of either sentence, or of the two when read together," the 6th Circuit's ruling read.

Generally, IGRA bars gaming on land acquired after 1988, as was the case with the tribe's purchase of the Vanderbilt property in August 2010. But Section 20 of the law contains an exception which applies to situations where a land claim settlement is involved.

The tribe believes the Vanderbilt parcel, since it was purchased with a trust fund established by the settlement act, qualifies for the exception despite its distance from the existing reservation. It's not the only Indian nation with such an argument -- the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians is pursuing two casinos based on a similar interpretation of the law.

Turtle Talk has posted documents from the case, Bay Mills Indian Community v. Whitmer, formerly Bay Mills Indian Community v. Snyder. Before that, the dispute was known by the name Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community, in which the state sued the tribe for opening the casino in the first place.

The earlier case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a May 2014 decision, the justices -- by a divided vote of 5 to 4 and after a lengthy wait -- held that the state could not sue the tribe due to sovereign immunity.

6th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision
Bay Mills Indian Community v. Whitmer (December 13, 2019)

Supreme Court Decision
Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community (May 27, 2014)

Supreme Court Documents
Oral Argument Transcript | Supreme Court Docket Sheet No. 12-515 | Supreme Court Order List | More from Tribal Supreme Court Project

Prior 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Decisions
Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community [Sovereign Immunity] (August 15, 2012)
Bay Mills Indian Community v. Snyder [Intervention of Saginaw Chippewa Tribe] (January 8, 2018)

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