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Supreme Court Indian Trust Ruling Is Victory for States Seeking to Limit Casinos

Posted Feb 24, 2009 12:47 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The U.S. Supreme Court has limited the authority of the federal government to transfer land in trust for the benefit of Indian tribes.

The decision is a victory for states seeking to prevent such transfers in an effort to control development on Indian lands, according to the Associated Press.

The ruling (PDF) today by Justice Clarence Thomas held that the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act applied only to tribes recognized by the federal government at the time the law was enacted, according to SCOTUSblog and AP.

In the case before the court, Carcieri v. Salazar, the state of Rhode Island had argued the Narragansett Indian Tribe was not authorized to transfer 31 acres of federal land into a federal trust because it did not obtain federal tribal status until 1983.

State officials feared the tribe wanted to build a casino on the site and that the transfer into the trust could remove state authority to ban construction.

Guy Martin, a partner at Perkins Coie who was formerly commissioner of natural resources for Alaska, told the ABA Journal that today’s decision could affect “dozens and dozens” of tribes that weren’t recognized or under federal jurisdiction in 1934.

He sees the potential for more litigation over the meaning of "federal jurisdiction" if the U.S. government or third parties move to invalidate trust acquisitions by these tribes. He points to opinions by four concurring and dissenting justices raising the issue, including a concurrence by Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

The Breyer concurrence said some tribes not recognized by the federal government in 1934 law might still have been under federal jurisdiction "even though the federal government did not believe so at the time," according to SCOTUSblog.

Martin also says there will likely be calls for a legislative solution. “This decision is strong enough and creates so much doubt that there’s no question there will be calls for congressional action to try to resolve this before it turns into a series of very contentious court actions.”

Updated at 12:45 p.m. to include comments by Martin.

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