GM 11-155

U.S. Supreme Court Agrees to Review D.C. Circuit Patchak Decision

On December 12, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case of Patchak v. Salazar, in which a non-Indian resident in Michigan sued the Secretary of the Interior to stop the Gun Lake Pottawatomi Tribe from building a casino. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (D.C. Circuit) decided the case in favor of the resident, and both the United States and the Tribe asked the Supreme Court to review that decision.

I. Background

The dispute over this land began in 2005, when the group Michigan Gambling Opposition (“MichGO”) sued the U.S. Department of Interior for taking a 147-acre parcel of land into trust for the Tribe for gaming purposes. MichGO alleged two claims against the Secretary of Interior, and one constitutional claim: (1) The Secretary violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not conducting a full Environmental Impact Statement, (2) the Secretary violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) by classifying the land as the Tribe’s “initial reservation,” and (3) that Section 5 of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (IRA) was an unconstitutional delegation of authority. The lawsuit was dismissed by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. MichGO appealed, and the dismissal was affirmed by the D.C. Circuit.

David Patchak then filed suit. As an individual non-Indian landowner, he sued the U. S. Department of the Interior for taking the parcel of land into trust for the Tribe for the purposes of gaming. Patchak, who resides near the site, alleged that the rural character of the area would be destroyed and that his property values would diminish. He claimed that taking land into trust for the Tribe violated the IRA because, he argued, the Tribe was not under federal jurisdiction in 1934, thus not eligible to receive the land into trust.

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed Patchak’s suit, holding that he did not have “prudential” standing to challenge actions taken under the IRA. The court said that prudential standing requires a plaintiff to demonstrate that his interests are within the “zone of interests” that a statute was designed to protect or regulate. It found that the IRA was intended to “enable tribal self-determination, self-government, and self-sufficiency,” and that Patchak was not an intended beneficiary of these objectives. As a result, the district court held that Patchak did not have standing to bring his challenge and dismissed the lawsuit.

Patchak appealed to the D.C. Circuit, which reversed the district court in a unanimous opinion. The D.C. Circuit first held that Patchak had prudential standing to challenge the decision of the United States to take land into trust for the Tribe for gaming. The court reasoned that because the U.S. Supreme Court’s Carceiri decision requires tribes to have been under federal jurisdiction in 1934 in order for land to be taken into trust under the IRA, plaintiffs who allege that a tribe does not meet that requirement have standing to sue. The court noted that it was not considering the IRA in isolation, but that the IRA provisions were “linked to the [IGRA].” Viewing these two statutes together, the court held that Patchak is within the “zone of interests” that the IRA and the IGRA were intended to protect.

Second, the D.C. Circuit held that Patchak’s claim was not barred by the Quiet Title Act’s Indian lands exception to the Administrative Procedure Act’s (APA) waiver of sovereign immunity. The APA contains a waiver of sovereign immunity for challenging certain agency actions, unless another statute bars suit against the United States. The United States had argued the Quiet Title Act does contain such a bar against suit, since Patchak’s claim involved Indian lands. Acknowledging that it was in conflict with the Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuit Courts of Appeal, the D.C. Circuit found that a claim brought under the Quiet Title Act must claim that the plaintiff has an ownership interest in the land held by the United States. Because Patchak did not claim to own the land the U.S. held in trust for the Tribe, the D.C. Circuit held that the Quiet Title Act was irrelevant, and thus did not bar his suit.

II. The Issues the Supreme Court Will Consider

The Supreme Court has granted the petitions for certiorari filed by both the United States and the Gun Lake Tribe. The United States presented two questions for the Supreme Court: (1) Whether the Administrative Procedure Act (5 U.S.C. § 702) waives the sovereign immunity of the United States from a suit challenging its title to lands that it holds in trust for an Indian tribe, and (2) Whether a private individual who alleges injuries resulting from the operation of a gaming facility on Indian trust land has prudential standing to challenge the decision of the Secretary of the Interior to take title to that land in trust pursuant to the Indian Reorganization Act, 25 U.S.C. § 465, on the ground that the Tribe is allegedly not eligible for trust land under that Act.

The Gun Lake Tribe presented its two questions as: (1) Whether the Quiet Title Act and its reservation of the United States’ sovereign immunity in suits involving “trust or restricted Indian lands” apply to all suits disputing that the United States has good title to land, 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(a), as the Seventh, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits have held, or whether they apply only when the plaintiff himself claims title to the land, as the D.C. Circuit held, and (2) Whether prudential standing to sue under federal law can be based on either (i) the plaintiff’s ability to “police” an agency’s compliance with the law, as held by the D.C. Circuit but rejected by the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits, or (ii) interests protected by a different federal statute than the one on which the suit is based, as held by the D.C. Circuit but rejected by the Federal Circuit.

This case is significant for a variety of reasons, most notably because a decision adverse to the Tribe could potentially render it easier to challenge the trust status of Indian lands after they have been taken into trust for tribes.

We will keep you posted on this case as further developments arise.