U.S. Supreme Court Grants Cert in Patchak v. Zinke

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NIGA Member Tribes

Chairman Ernest L. Stevens Jr.
Jason C. Giles, Executive Director
Danielle Her Many Horses, Deputy Executive Director/General Counsel

U.S. Supreme Court Grants Cert in Patchak v. Zinke

May 8, 2017

On May 1, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court (Court) granted certiorari in Patchak v. Zinke, to determine whether a federal statute that confirms the trust status of land and withdraws federal court jurisdiction over actions relating to such land violates the Constitution's separation of powers principles.  How the Court rules could affect Congress' ability to enact legislation protecting tribal governments from legal challenges to the status of their trust and reservation lands. 

The statute at issue involves the Bradley Property, a tract of land taken into trust on behalf of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians (Gun Lake Tribe).  In 2014, the U.S. Congress enacted the Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act (Gun Lake Act), which reaffirmed the trust status of the Bradley Property, ratified the trust acquisition by the Department of the Interior (Interior), and ordered the prompt dismissal of any federal action relating to the Bradley Property.  

The Gun Lake Act was enacted in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2009 decision Patchak v. Salazar, in which the Court ruled that Patchak had standing to bring his suit, and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.  While the case was on remand, President Obama signed the Gun Lake Act into law.  Patchak subsequently raised a constitutional challenge to the statute, arguing that it violated the separation of powers principles.  The district court rejected Patchak's argument and dismissed the case, ruling that "Congress has legislatively restricted the Court's jurisdiction" and that it "find[s] nothing constitutionally repugnant in its exercise."

On appeal to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the D.C. Circuit upheld the lower court's decision and affirmed the constitutionality of the Gun Lake Act.  The D.C. Circuit held that "Congress may indeed direct courts to apply newly enacted, outcome-altering legislation in pending cases," as long as it does not impermissibly encroach upon the judiciary by prescribing how courts should decide a pending case.  

In reaching its decision, the D.C. Court relied on a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Bank Markazi v. Peterson, which looked to whether a statute "changed the law by establishing new substantive standards."  Applying this rule, the D.C. Circuit found that the Gun Lake Act indeed "changed the law" by ratifying Interior's decision to take the Bradley Property into trust and providing a new legal standard requiring federal courts to dismiss any actions relating to the property.  As further support, the D.C. Circuit noted that the Gun Lake Act had been enacted pursuant to Congress' "broad general powers to legislate in respect to Indian tribes, powers that [the Supreme Court] ha[s] consistently described as 'plenary and exclusive.'"  The D.C. Circuit concluded that courts "ought to defer to the policy judgment reflected therein." 

The question now up for review before the U.S. Supreme Court is whether a statute withdrawing federal court jurisdiction over a pending lawsuit violates the Constitution's separation of powers principles.  The Court's decision will likely turn on whether the Gun Lake Act's directive requiring federal courts to "promptly dismiss" any new or pending lawsuits concerning the Bradley Property improperly encroaches upon the powers of the judiciary by dictating a particular result of a lawsuit.  If the Court reverses the lower court rulings to find the Gun Lake Act unconstitutional, such decision could impact the ability of tribal governments to seek Congressional certainty and protection over their lands through affirmation acts such as the Gun Lake Act.

Patchak v. Zinke will be the first federal Indian law case to be heard by newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. 

NIGA will continue to monitor the case. If you have any questions or concerns regarding this alert please contact Danielle Her Many Horses at dhermanyhorses@indiangaming.org