Tribes welcome ruling in Bay Mills off-reservation casino case

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May 28, 2014

Tribes welcome ruling in Bay Mills off-reservation casino case

Tribes around the country breathed a sign of relief on Tuesday as the U.S. Supreme Court finally issued its decision in Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community.

By a 5-4 vote, the court blocked Michigan from suing the Bay Mills Indian Communityover a disputed off-reservation casino. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act did not waive the tribe's immunity, the decision stated.

"Congress and the Supreme Court have long recognized that a state cannot interfere with an Indian tribe's sovereignty. We are gratified that the Court reaffirmed that longstanding principle today," the tribe said in a statement. "Bay Mills, a federally recognized tribe, depends for its livelihood on revenues from gaming activities conducted in accordance with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The court's decision affords proper deference to Congress's judgment, and it will ensure that tribes like Bay Mills can continue to fund tribal education and perform other sovereign functions."

Tribes elsewhere also welcomed the ruling. President Ben Shelly of the Navajo Nation called it a rare win at the high court.

“Tribes have won few victories at the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years, but today in a case with implications for every tribe in the country, our sovereignty was upheld," Shelly said in a statement. "Tribal sovereignty is not an abstract concept to be curtailed at the whim of a state. It is the concrete foundation of a government-to-government relationship that has shaped the federal relationship with Native Americans. We commend the court for following precedent. The Navajo Nation remains cautiously optimistic about the ruling because while sovereign immunity was upheld, the court indicates other tools at the state of Michigan’s disposal that erode sovereignty.”

The United South and Eastern Tribes echoed similar concerns about the need to protect tribal sovereignty from future attacks. The divided court expressed varying opinions about the ability of tribes and tribal officials to be sued by state governments.

"It was a 5-4 decision, with the dissenters having a strikingly different and far narrower view of the scope of tribal sovereign immunity," USET said in a statement. "Additionally, the majority decision identified certain forms of state authority over tribal officials which will need to be examined closely, and may be of concern down the road."

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette lost the case. But he said he was going to go after individual tribal officials in hopes of blocking the Bay Mills casino on other grounds.

"Today the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the state's ability to restrain the illegal expansion of tribal gaming on state lands," Schuette said in a press release. "The 5-4 decision upheld the injunctive power of states to sue tribal leaders to shut down illegal casinos, and reaffirmed the states' authority to bring criminal charges against anyone engaging in illegal gaming on state lands."

The tribe closed the casino in March 2011 after losing a decision in the federal district court in Michigan. It's located on land that is not yet in trust or restricted status.