Published on Feb 27, 2018
WASHINGTON, D.C. | On February 27, 2018 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in favor of the Department of the Interior and the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, settling the long running dispute with a final decision in Patchak v. Zinke. This was the second trip to the Supreme Court for this case, where Mr. Patchak repeatedly challenged the Department of the Interior’s authority to acquire land in trust for the Band, commonly referred to as the Gun Lake Tribe. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the Tribal Supreme Court Project submitted an amicus brief in support of the Tribe, arguing that trust land acquisitions are critical to restoring tribal homelands, and that the Gun Lake Land Restoration Act is consistent with Congress’s authority to address the uncertainty injected into the trust land acquisition process by the Carcieri and Patchak I decisions.
“Congratulations to the Gun Lake Tribe for this important legal decision,” NCAI President Jefferson Keel cheered the victory. “All tribes need a land base as a homeland for their people, and the Supreme Court confirmed the Gun Lake Tribe’s base today. The Tribe demonstrated great perseverance and we are heartened by this outcome.” This issue started with the Department of the Interior, then it went to the Supreme Court in 2012, then to Congress, and then finally back to the Supreme Court. Every branch of the federal government has affirmed the rights of the Gun Lake Tribe to their tribal homeland.
In 2012, the Supreme Court issued its first decision in Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish v. Patchak, where Mr. Patchak challenged the Secretary of the Interior’s decision to place land into trust for a tribal nation under the authority of the Indian Reorganization Act. The Supreme Court held that the Quiet Title Act does not prevent retroactive attacks on the status of tribal lands as federally protected trust lands. A consequence of the first Patchak decision is that claimants like Mr. Patchak, with remote injuries and indirect interests, are enabled to seek reversal of settled federal land acquisitions. The Supreme Court found “[t]hat [the tribe’s] argument [wa]s not without force, but it [needed to] be addressed [by] Congress.”
The Gun Lake Band then went to Congress, which enacted the Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act in 2014. This law affirmed the Secretary’s acquisition of land for the tribe and barred further federal court review of the trust acquisition.
Mr. Patchak then brought the current lawsuit. In this case, the Supreme Court reviewed whether the provision in the Act that barred further federal court review violated the Constitution’s separation of powers between Congress and the federal courts. Justice Thomas’s decision held that Congress violates Article III when it compels results under old law, but Congress does not violate Article III when it changes the law. “Before the Gun Lake Act, federal courts had jurisdiction to hear these actions….Now they do not. This kind of legal change is well within Congress’ authority and does not violate Article III.”
Although the question is not unique to federal Indian law, the decision is very important for the Gun Lake Tribe. It also strongly reinforces Congress’s authority to pass laws acquiring land in trust for tribal governments, and to limit judicial review of such decisions.
NCAI and the Native American Rights Fund created the Tribal Supreme Court Project in 2001 to increase coordination and strategy on litigation that affects the rights of tribes. The Project encourages tribes and their attorneys to contact the Tribal Supreme Court Project to coordinate resources, develop strategy, and prepare briefs with a unified voice. For more information please see https://sct.narf.org/.
About the National Congress of American Indians:
Founded in 1944, the National Congress of American Indians is the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization in the country. NCAI advocates on behalf of tribal governments and communities, promoting strong tribal-federal government-to-government policies, and promoting a better understanding among the general public regarding American Indian and Alaska Native governments, people and rights. For more information visit www.ncai.org