The U.S. Supreme Court last month heard arguments in a Rhode Island case against the U.S. Interior DepartmentÆs authority to take land into trust for tribes recognized after passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. The issue affects tribes recognized since then, which must have trust land to gain certain tax benefits and to build casinos. An adverse ruling theoretically could lead to some gaming tribes losing their casinos.
The case before the court, Carcieri v. Kempthorne, involves 31 acres in Charleston, Rhode Island, that the Narragansett Indian Tribe bought in 1991. When Interior moved to take the land into trust, Rhode Island Governor Donald L. Carcieri sued Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, saying the IRA prohibited such action for the tribe, which got federal recognition in 1983. The land, Carcieri argued, should remain subject to state lawùwhich prohibits casinos like the one Narragansett hopes to build.
A prime part of the stateÆs argument centers on IRA language that says the act applies to “all persons of Indian descent who are members of any recognized Indian tribe now under federal jurisdiction.” The state says “now” means 1934. Interior counters that “now” means the moment when it takes land into trust.
Justice Stephen Breyer cited posters saying “Give Blood Now” when questioning the stateÆs interpretation. “It doesnÆt mean when the poster was printed,” he said. However, Breyer also doubted that Congress meant to leave the interpretation up to Interior.
An hour of sharp questioning left Carcieri optimistic like other Rhode Island representatives who attended the Washington, D.C., hearing. “I think weÆve got it,” said one. “It seems clear that the justices understand IRA is limited to 1934.”
Narragansett Indian Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas, who also observed the hearing, declined to predict an outcome. “ItÆs just a matter of waiting to see what happens,” he said.
The courtÆs ruling probably will be announced around late spring 2009.