Above, Gun Lake Tribal officials celebrated last May as they cut the ribbon on the casino’s recent $76 million expansion. (File photo)

Supreme Court sides with Tribe

Justices: Congress has the power vs. dangerous precedent
By: 
Ryan Lewis, Editor

The legal battle over the Gun Lake Tribe’s land has ended with the U.S. Supreme Court siding 6-3 with the tribe.

Scott Sprague, Chairman of the Gun Lake Tribe, said, “This decision ends a decades-long struggle, and ensures the Tribe can carry on our Elders’ vision for growth and self-sufficiency. We are thankful the Supreme Court upheld the many lower court decisions in favor of the Tribe. This is a significant development for not only the Tribe, but also all of Indian Country.”

The case brought last year by David Patchak of Shelbyville challenged what he saw as an unconstitutional federal law that ended his 2008 lawsuit. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in November and issued a set of opinions Tuesday, Feb. 27.

At a press conference Wednesday, Feb. 28, Sprague said the ruling removed “the troublesome asterisk” the legal fight had placed on all of the tribe’s planning efforts.

Now, he said, “one of our economic engines, the Gun Lake Casino, can continue to flourish and grow responsibly.”

The tribe opened the first phase of its casino on 129th Avenue just off the Shelbyville exit of US-131 in 2011 after fighting lawsuits designed to delay its construction.

The tribe petitioned the federal government in 2005 to place 147 acres of land in that area into trust. Patchak sued, challenging that decision. After a series of appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that Patchak, a farmer who lives near the casino, had standing to bring his case.

Had the government’s action to place the land in trust been overturned, the tribe would have lost sovereign control over it. Without that, the tribe’s compact with the state would be broken, voiding its Class III gaming license—which permits the types of gaming associated with modern casinos, such as table card games, roulette and craps along with its electronic slot games.

The Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act, passed in September 2014, ended that case, however. A press release from the tribe’s legal team at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP said, “the Gun Lake Act stripped the court of jurisdiction to hear the case; the D.C. Circuit upheld that decision.

“In (Tuesday’s) decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal by a 6-3 vote. A four-Justice plurality held that the Gun Lake Act did not violate Article III of the Constitution, and two Justices concurred in the judgment on the ground that the Act validly reinstated sovereign immunity from suit.”

Tribal vice chair Ed Pigeon said Wednesday the lawsuits had been ongoing his entire adult life.

“I’m very pleased to have been a part of this from beginning to end,” Pigeon said. “From back when MichGO, 23 is Enough, and other large organization were all fighting us—all along the way, we knew we would prevail and justice would be done.

“Now we can really go forward and advance our tribe and the community around us without any threat of obstacles in our way.”

Tribal council member Jodie Webb Palmer thanked the tribe’s community partners, especially the group Friends of the Gun Lake Indians and local city, township and county officials.

“Their support has sustained us over the years,” she said.

 

Decision

The Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act reaffirmed the federal government’s action to place land in trust for the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians. It also specifically ended current and prevented future legal challenges.

Patchak’s lawsuit challenging that law argued that the legislature had overstepped its powers by effectively deciding his lawsuit.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas authored the main opinion, saying Congress is only prohibited from changing outcomes under already established laws. It is, however, allowed to change the law.

“Thus, when Congress strips federal courts of jurisdiction, it exercises a valid legislative power no less than when it lays taxes, coins money, declares war, or invokes any other power that the Constitution grants it,” he wrote.

Thomas said he understands how the law could be viewed as unfair.

“By all accounts, the (tribe) exercised its political influence to persuade Congress to enact a narrow jurisdiction-stripping provision that effectively ends all lawsuits threatening its casino, including Patchak’s,” he writes. “But the question in this case is ‘not favoritism, nor even corruption, but power’... Under this Court’s precedents, Congress has the power to ‘apply newly enacted, outcome-altering legislation in pending civil cases.’”

Justices Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan joined with Thomas’ opinion.

Breyer wrote a concurring opinion, saying the wording of the law was designed not out of a need to help only one party but to provide as clear-cut as possible guidance for courts.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sonia Sotomayor also wrote concurring opinions, addressing instead the notion that the federal government can claim immunity from lawsuits. It had been withdrawn thus far to allow the case to proceed over the years.

Ginsberg wrote, “What Congress grants, it may retract. That is undoubtedly true of the Legislature’s authority to forgo or retain the Government’s sovereign immunity from suit. The Court need venture no further to decide this case.”

Chief Justice John Roberts was joined by justices Anthony Kennedy and Neil Gorsuch in the dissenting opinion, arguing Congress had clearly overstepped.

“Contrary to the plurality, I would not cede unqualified authority to the Legislature to decide the outcome of such a case,” he wrote. “Article III of the Constitution vests that responsibility in the Judiciary alone.”

Roberts said the Supreme Court recently set precedent that Congress “could not pass a law directing that, in the hypothetical pending case of Smith v. Jones, ‘Smith wins.’” He argued that stripping the jurisdiction and effectively deciding the case amounted to the same thing.

He cautioned that Congress could now use this in the future as well without limit, “conferring on the Legislature a colonial-era authority to pick winners and losers in pending litigation as it pleases.

“The Framers saw this case coming. They knew that if Congress exercised the judicial power, it would be impossible ‘to guard the Constitution and the rights of individuals from... serious oppressions’... Patchak thought his rights were violated and went to court. He expected to have his case decided by judges whose independence from political pressure was ensured by the safeguards of Article III—life tenure and salary protection. It was instead decided by Congress, in favor of the litigant it preferred, under a law adopted just for the occasion.”

 

Going forward

As far as the tribe knows, there are no other legal challenges remaining in this case.

“It’s the Supreme Court; they are the law of the land, and they’ve spoken,” Pigeon said. “The whole community now can rest assured that we’re here to stay and we’re going to grow and they will grow with us.”

Tribal spokesman James Nye said the tribe knew the legal fight was maintained by a small few; the larger business community had embraced the tribe. He noted the Grand Rapids Business Journal named the tribe Newsmaker of the Year.

“We accepted that at Frederik Meijer Gardens and there were 600 people there,” Nye said. “I think it shows you a lot has changed over the years. For the most part, I think there’s never been an animosity or adversarial relationship between the tribe and anybody.

“And as far as Mr. Patchak is concerned, his claims were baseless from the very beginning.”

Nye said Patchak had argued he would be harmed due to living within 3 miles of the casino.

“The tribe has done such a good job of being a great, local partner, funding so many worthwhile causes,” Nye said. “David Patchak actually lives in a safer and more prosperous community because of the tribe So, it’s 100 percent opposite from the legal position he claimed to have in court... that’s a testament to the leadership of the tribe.”

Sprague said “We want as much harmony as we can promote. As far as hard feelings, we’re not here to dwell on that. We’re looking forward.”

Sprague said the ruling frees the tribe up to further expand the casino.

“In the midst of our planning, it was always in the back of our minds that there could be a downturn in the legal world for us,” he said. “With that removed, we can move forward without that hanging over our head. So planning is a little freer.”

Last May, the Gun Lake Casino cut the ribbon on the first phase of a $76 million expansion that added its Harvest Buffet, more gaming space, and a new Stage 131 bar. That gave it more than 2,000 slot machines and a total of 156,000 square feet.

By September, it opened its new “high-limit” room with slots and table games and a new bar.

Construction is ongoing to build a 1,200-space, five-story parking deck slated for completion this summer.

Contact Ryan Lewis at rmlewis@allegannews.com or (269) 673-5534.

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