Supreme Court Ruling Could Thwart Tribal Casinos

A recent ruling by the United States Supreme Court could make it much more difficult for Native American tribes to open casinos. The ruling expanded the ability of groups to sue the tribes to challenge the development of land for gambling.

In this particular case, a Michigan tribe known as the Gun Lake Tribe wished to have the federal government take land into trust so a casino can be developed. David Patchak, a neighbor of the tribe, opposes the casino and filed a lawsuit alleging that the government could not take the land into trust. By an 8-1 vote, the Supreme Court upheld the right of Patchak to file a suit challenging the casino development.

Native American tribes have long been able to operate casinos on their own sovereign soil. Like anyone else, though, the tribes are able to buy land across the country. If they buy land that is not part of their sovereign territory, they must have the U.S. Department of the Interior take the land into trust on behalf of the tribe, a process that often takes years. A recent court case in Rhode Island stated that the Interior Department can only take land into trust for tribes that were federally recognized when the Indian Reorganization Act was passed in 1934. Since the Gun Lake Tribe was not recognized at that time, the lawsuit argues that the Interior Department cannot take the land into trust, which would then block the tribe from building a casino on the land.

The Supreme Court has not yet ruled on whether a tribe must have been recognized in 1934. In the meantime, the recent ruling seems to allow any neighbor of the land in question has the right to file suit to block the casino development. Tribal leaders and others in the gambling industry worry that will make it much more difficult for tribes to open and operate casinos.