Supreme Court ruling dampens tribal casino expansion

Feb 26, 2009 8:15 PM
Staff & Wire Reports |

The ability of tribal casinos to expand their operations took a blow this week as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limited the authority of the federal government to transfer land in trust for benefit of Indian tribes.

Many tribes have relied upon acquiring land areas off the reservation in order to build or expand casinos because their tribal home lands were often remote from areas of population.

The decision rendered Tuesday is a victory for states seeking to prevent such land transfers in an effort to limit development of casinos on Indian lands.

The ruling by Justice Clarence Thomas held that the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act applied only to tribes recognized by the federal government at the time the law was enacted.

In the case before the court, Carcieri v. Salazar, the state of Rhode Island had argued the Narragansett Indian Tribe was not authorized to transfer 31 acres of federal land into a federal trust because it did not obtain federal tribal status until 1983.

State officials feared the tribe wanted to build a casino on the site and that the transfer into the trust could remove state authority to ban construction.

According to a report in the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal, the high court decision could affect "dozens and dozens" of tribes that weren’t recognized or under federal jurisdiction in 1934.

But the issue – building casinos on land acquired in trust – is not completely settled, not according to legal experts.

Guy Martin, a partner at Perkins Coie, said there’s potential for more litigation over the meaning of "federal jurisdiction" if the U.S. government or others move to invalidate trust acquisitions by these tribes.

Martin added that there will likely be calls for a legislative solution.

"This decision is strong enough and creates so much doubt that there’s no question there will be calls for congressional action to try to resolve this before it turns into a series of very contentious court actions," Martin told the ABA Journal.