While all attention focuses on the U.S. Supreme Court’s imminent rulings in the Affordable Care Act cases and the Arizona immigration case, the Supreme Court has been issuing rulings in a number of lower profile cases, one of which affects local government.
This week the U.S. Supreme Court held in Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians v. Patchak that the United States can be sued for acquiring land per the Indian Reorganization Act. And a private citizen who lives near the acquired land has “standing” to bring the lawsuit.
Section 465 of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) allows the Secretary of the Interior to acquire property “for the purpose of providing lands for Indians.” The Secretary acquired land for the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians to open a casino. David Patchak lives near that land and sued the Secretary claiming the she lacked authority to take title to the land because Band wasn’t a federally recognized tribe in 1934 when the IRA was enacted. Patchak also alleged economic, environmental, and aesthetic harm from the casino.
The tribe claimed that the United States has sovereign immunity from this lawsuit per the Quiet Title Act. The Court rejected this argument noting that Patchak wasn’t claiming title to the acquired land as required by the Quiet Title Act. The tribe also claimed that Patchak had no “standing” to bring a lawsuit in this case because his economic, environmental, and aesthetic interests focus on land use while §465 focuses on land acquisition. The Court again disagreed noting Secretary of the Interior takes title to property keeping in mind how the tribe will use the land.
It may not appear that this case has anything to do with local government because it involves a dispute between a private citizen and the United States. However, in one of three similar cases cited by the Supreme Court, the City of Tampa was suing over a tract of land in trust for the Seminole Indians. Also local government where this casino is to be located filed an amicus brief in favor of the tribe in this case.
Does local government benefit from a ruling in this case? That depends. To the extent local government wants to bring actions under §465 this case is a win. However, to the extent private citizens bring §465 claims and cities and counties (as in this case) don’t like the position a private citizen is taking in a case, this case is a loss. Regarding standing, the D.C. Circuit indicated that the authority of state and local government to bring §465 claims is clear. To the extent private citizens may now have standing to bring §465 claims this may be to the advantage or disadvantage of cities and counties depending on whether they agrees or disagrees with the private citizen’s position.