Divided High Court Backs Act of Congress to Quash Suits

As the Supreme Court took up a case involving the Gun Lake Casino on May 1, 2017, a website for the casino offered this picture of the property under the heading “Construction Progress.”

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court sided with Congress on Tuesday regarding a law that blocked federal courts from hearing challenges about Michigan land taken into trust for Native Americans.

“Before the Gun Lake Act, federal courts had jurisdiction to hear these actions,” Justice Clarence Thomas put it concisely in the lead opinion. “Now they do not. This kind of legal change is well within Congress’ authority and does not violate Article III.”

David Patchak initiated the proceedings here under in 2008, before the law had changed.

Vying to stop a band of Pottawatomi from building a casino in Wayland, Michigan, Patchak argued that the tribe was ineligible to acquire the casino land from the U.S. government because federal recognition of the tribe did not occur until 1998.

Known as the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish or Gun Lake Band, the tribe opened its casino for business in 2011 amid a series of upheavals in Patchak’s case.

President Barack Obama signed the Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act into law in 2014, while Patchak’s suit was still pending. The law specifically reaffirms that the land that the U.S. Department of the Interior took into trust for the Gun Lake Band is “trust land.”

Even more fatal to Patchak’s case is a provision in the law that calls for the “prompt” dismissal of any federal court action relating to the trust land in question.

Though Patchak saw the law as an impermissible infringement of the judicial branch, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon disagreed and the D.C. Circuit affirmed dismissal of the case in 2016.

The Supreme Court had helped Patchak in 2012 get his case off the ground, but the court ruled 6-3 Tuesday that the Gun Lake Act sealed the suit’s fate.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan joined the lead opinion by Thomas, but Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg each penned separate opinions concurring in the judgment.

“What Congress grants, it may retract,” Ginsburg wrote. “That is undoubtedly true of the Legislature’s authority to forgo or retain the government’s sovereign immunity from suit. The court need venture no further to decide this case.”

Sotomayor joined Ginsburg’s opinion and wrote separately to emphasize that the Gun Lake Act “should not be read to strip the federal courts of jurisdiction but rather to restore the federal government’s sovereign immunity.”

Breyer wrote separately as well, distinguishing what Congress did here from  an unrelated effort that the court ruled against in 2016. In Markazi v. Peterson, Breyer wrote, Congress “use[d] its jurisdictional authority to reach a result (involving the pardon power) that it could not constitutionally reach directly.” (Parentheses in original.)

“Here Congress has used its jurisdictional power to supplement, without altering, action that no one has challenged as unconstitutional,” Breyer continued. “Under these circumstances, I find its use of that power unobjectionable. And, on this understanding, I join the plurality’s opinion.”

Chief Justice John Roberts meanwhile argued to the contrary in his dissent.

“Two terms ago, this court unanimously agreed that Congress could not pass a law directing that, in the hypothetical pending case of Smith v. Jones, ‘Smith wins,’” Roberts wrote, referring to the same Bank Markazi case that Breyer had mentioned.

“Today,” Breyer continued, “the plurality refuses to enforce even that limited principle in the face of a very real statute that dictates the disposition of a single pending case. Contrary to the plurality, I would not cede unqualified authority to the Legislature to decide the outcome of such a case. Article III of the Constitution vests that responsibility in the judiciary alone.”

Justices Anthony Kennedy and Neil Gorsuch joined the Roberts dissent.

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