In what could become a test case on the limits of tribal sovereignty, the United States Supreme Court last month heard arguments from Michigan officials who say a tiny off-reservation Indian casino in the community of Vanderbilt is illegal. State lawmakers want to permanently shut down the Bay Mills casino, a slot parlor with 84 machines about 90 miles from the tribe’s reservation, on the grounds that it opened without permission from the federal government.
State governments in the U.S. are usually barred from suing sovereign tribes unless the tribe waives its sovereign immunity or Congress nullifies it. But Michigan Solicitor General John Bursch says blanket immunity that extends to businesses run off tribal lands “would bar our ability to enforce any ruling.”
“The big picture thing is the state wants to stop illegal gaming,” Bursch told Michigan Radio. “The Bay Mills tribe has set up a new casino in Vanderbilt, off of its reservation, and under federal law we don’t think this qualifies as Indian lands.”
Though the Supreme Court already said the land is not to be considered “Indian lands” for gaming, 65 tribes across the country have asked the high court to reject the state’s argument. On the other side, 17 states have filed briefs supporting Michigan’s position.
“If France came over and they opened an illegal casino in Lansing, Michigan, there’s no question that we could go to court to stop that,” Bursch said. “So it’s going to result in treating tribal businesses the same way that we would treat businesses by another state or a foreign country.”
The high court’s decision is expected later this year.