WASHINGTON, DC - The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a ground-shaking decision
that impacts new Indian casino from California to Massachusetts. The ruling says
the federal government cannot place land into trust for Native American tribes
that were federally recognized after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
The transfer of land into federal trust is the process of placing the land under
tribal sovereignty and excluding it from state laws and taxation. This is the
fundamental step before building an Indian casino.
The court case was brought by the state of Rhode Island against the Narragansett
Tribe, which applied to the federal government to place 31 acres of land into
trust. The state did not want a casino on that land and sued to stop the
process. They claimed the Secretary of the Interior Department did not have the
authority under the Indian
Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934. That law was
enacted in June 1934 and authorizes the Secretary to take land into trust for
members of tribes that are "now under Federal jurisdiction." The Narragansetts
became federally recognized in 1983. The Supreme Court agreed with Rhode Island
by a 6-3 vote. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion which said,
"Because the record in this case establishes that the Narragansett Tribe was not
under federal jurisdiction when the IRA was enacted, the secretary [of the
interior] does not have the authority to take the parcel at issue into trust."
Those tribes not formally recognized on June 18, 1934 now face many legal
questions. For those seeking to build new casinos, the ruling is a roadblock.
For those with existing casinos, their legal status will be challenged.
The ruling is not retroactive and does not affect tribes recognized after 1934
that already have built casinos on trust land.
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