This fall, the United States Supreme Court will hear Patchak v. Zinke, which pits landowner David Patchak against the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians (commonly known as the Gun Lake Tribe) in Michigan. The case challenges both Congressional authority concerning Indian affairs, as well as the authority of the Department of the Interior to take land into trust on behalf of Indian tribes.
At issue are two questions: Whether a statute passed by Congress in 2014 granting 147 acres to the Gun Lake Tribe and directing the federal courts to “promptly dismiss” Patchak’s previous lawsuit violate the constitution based on the separation of powers principles; and does the statute that does not amend any generally applicable substantive or procedural laws but deprives an individual of the right to pursue a pending lawsuit violate the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment?
The Gun Lake Tribe was formally recognized by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1999. Two years later, the tribe petitioned the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to put a tract known as the Bradley Property into trust for the tribe’s use under the Indian Reorganization Act. The BIA granted the petition in 2005, afterwhich the tribe built the Gun Lake Casino.
In his petition, Patchak argues that he moved to the area because of its rural setting and that the construction and operation of a casino “caused him injury.” Patchak filed suit against the Secretary of the Interior, asserting that the Secretary lacked the authority to put land into trust for the tribe.
After the Supreme Court ruled that Patchak had standing to sue, Congress subsequently passed the Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act in 2014 with near unanimous bipartisan support. The legislation explicitly directed that any legal action “shall not be filed or maintained in a Federal court and shall be promptly dismissed.”
Undeterred, Patchak filed new litigation―this time challenging Congress’s explicit authority regarding Indian affairs.
“The separation of powers is a bedrock principle that is critically important to the way our government is run and to the well-being of our citizens,” Patchak’s lawyer, Scott Gant, told the National Law Journal. “I was gratified the court agreed with our view that the case was important enough to review.”
“The tribe is eager to argue the merits of the Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act before the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Gun Lake Chairperson Scott Sprague.
But legal experts say that Patchak’s suit poses a threat not only to the tribe’s control of the land, but also its gaming compacts with the state of Michigan.
Additionally, if the Gun Lake legislation is overturned, it would reanimate Patchak’s previous suit challenging the Department of Interior’s authority to put land into trust, and potentially undermining Congressional legislative authority regarding the nation’s 567 federally recognized tribes.
“This case is an exercise in the separation of powers that was left undecided in a previous, unrelated case and unfortunately, the Gun Lake Tribe is caught in the middle,” said Zeke Fletcher, the tribe’s attorney. “But it’s important to remember that the legislative authority regarding Indian affairs is under the exclusive domain of Congress, which passed this act with the clear intent to settle the issue of putting the land into trust for the tribe.”