A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in a Rhode Island case, Carcieri v. Salazar, in one fell swoop alters the landscape for Indian casinos, and may call into question dozens of existing ones.
The court ruled in late February that a tribe that was recognized after a 1934 federal law was adopted is not eligible to put land into trust.
The tribe in question is the Narragansett tribe, but there are many other tribes which fit the description, including quite a few that already have casinos, which could now be in jeopardy.
The law the ruling refers to is the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which states that tribes recognized after its adoption were not eligible to put land into federal trust. However, the Interior Department has operated under an interpretation that it could put land into trust for tribes recognized after that date.
Interior argued that it could put land into trust for a tribe no matter when the tribe was recognized. The high court disagreed. So, many tribes that put land into trust in the last 20 years could be facing problems.
“Because the record in this case establishes that the Narragansett Tribe was not under federal jurisdiction when the IRA was enacted, the secretary does not have the authority to take the parcel at issue into trust,” Justice Clarence Thomas, writing the majority opinion, declared.
The ruling prevents the Narragansetts from building a housing project on 31 acres in Charlestown, near Providence. It doesn’t address gaming, only the tribe’s desire to avoid paying state taxes. The Reorganization Act referred to tribes that existed after 1889. However, Rhode Island’s legislature disbanded the Narragansetts in 1880, and it was only in 1983 that the federal government recognized it.
But the ruling appears to have a more widespread effect on Indian gaming tribes. Tribes affected include some who operate some of the most profitable casinos in the country. It could invite lawsuits from states that want tribal land to revert to state jurisdiction.
Some legal experts say the decision may not affect post-1934 tribes whose land is already in trust. They agree that only Congress can remove land from federal trust.
Other experts say that tribes whose status is in doubt could ask Congress to amend the 1934 law to specifically include tribes recognized after that year. “I think it would be pretty easy to just do a technical amendment to the Indian Reorganization Act,” said one such expert.
States whose jurisdictions contain such tribes would probably oppose such a move.
Just some of the tribes that could be affected by the ruling include the Oneida Indian Nation in New York, owners of Turning Stone Casino; the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in Minnesota, owners of the Mystic Lake Casino; the Seminole Tribe of Florida, owners of several casinos around the state; the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts, which is trying to build its first casino in Middleboro; the Gun Lake Band of Pottawatomi in Michigan, which hopes to build a new casino in Wayland; the Oneidas of Wisconsin, owners of several casinos in the state; the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, which hopes to build a compacted casino; and California’s Chemehuevi tribe, which is bidding to build a casino in Barstow.