Today the United States Supreme Court held, in Match-E-Be-Nash-She Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians v. Patchak, that a lawsuit concerning the Gun Lake Casino was not barred by sovereign immunity, which means the case will proceed toward trial on the underlying legal issues. The suit arose when a community member living near the then-proposed casino challenged whether the U.S. Department of the Interior was violating federal law by taking land into trust for the Gun Lake Band, because he believed that the Band did not qualify as an Indian tribe within the meaning of federal law. The government and the Band argued that the courts could not reach that underlying question because, in their view, a particular federal statute (the Quiet Title Act) and its sovereign-immunity provisions precluded the suit. (Sovereign immunity is the concept that one cannot sue the federal government unless Congress has passed a statute allowing the particular type of suit in question.)
In an 8-to-1 opinion written by Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court rejected the arguments of the U.S. Solicitor General and of the Band and held that the Quiet Title Act’s sovereign-immunity provisions did not apply because the plaintiff was not bringing a quiet-title claim. Instead, he was bringing a suit under a different statute (the Administrative Procedure Act) and asserting a different type of claim: a “garden-variety” claim, as the Court put it, that a federal agency had violated federal law. Because the plaintiff was not claiming that he should be awarded title to the land in question, his suit did not fall within the scope of the Quiet Title Act, and therefore the sovereign-immunity provisions of that particular act did not apply. Instead, the Court looked to the statute that actually governed claims of the sort that the plaintiff had brought and held that the “APA’s general waiver of sovereign immunity instead applies.” This decision may have broad implications. In the past, the government has successfully avoided review of its potentially illegal decisions taking land into trust by claiming that the Quiet Title Act barred review of even APA challenges, an argument that will no longer work.
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