Supreme Court hears arguments on sovereign immunity in Indian land suits

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] Tuesday in Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians v. Patchak [transcript, PDF; JURIST report] on US sovereign immunity in suits involving "trust or restricted Indian lands." David Patchak filed suit to prevent the Secretary of the Interior from holding land in trust for a Michigan Indian tribe. The district court dismissed his suit for lack of standing. The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled [opinion, PDF] that he had standing but found that the US was immune from suit. The case was heard in tandem with Salazar v. Patchak [docket]. Counsel for Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar argued:

The suit in this case suffers from two independent jurisdictional defects, either one of which provides a basis for reversing the judgment of the Court of Appeals. The first is that the United States has not waived its sovereign immunity from suits challenging its title to Indian trust lands. And the second is that Patchak, the plaintiff, lacks prudential standing because the interests that he seeks to vindicate in the suit are not within the zone of interests protected or regulated by section 5 of the Indian Reorganization Act, the provision whose alleged violation forms the basis for his complaint.
Counsel for the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians argued, "When you strip title to land, which is a fact in this case, you strip sovereignty. You wreak havoc on ongoing governmental operations, you—on criminal jurisdiction, civil jurisdiction, the backdrop against which contracts were negotiated, investment decisions made and economic development undertaken." When asked what relief Patchak is seeking, his attorney responded, "Mr. Patchak is seeking a declaratory judgment that the decision of the Secretary that it can take land into trust for this particular band of Indians is incorrect, and that, therefore, the decision to do so is ultra vires; and as an incident to that relief, now that the government has taken the land into trust, that the land now be taken out of trust."

 

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