Court rules for state in American Indian land case

The Associated Press
Tuesday, February 24, 2009; 10:41 AM

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Tuesday limited the federal government's authority to hold land in trust for Indian tribes, a victory for states seeking to impose local laws and control over development on Indian lands.

The court's ruling applies to tribes recognized by the federal government after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.

The U.S. government argued that the law allows it to take land into trust for tribes regardless of when they were recognized, but Justice Clarence Thomas said in his majority opinion that the law "unambiguously refers to those tribes that were under the federal jurisdiction" when it was enacted.

The ruling comes in a case involving the Narragansett Indian Tribe in Rhode Island and a 31-acre tract of land.

At issue was whether the land, in Charlestown, R.I., should be subject to state law, including a prohibition on casino gambling, or whether the parcel should be governed by tribal and federal law.

The dispute dates to 1991, when the Narragansetts purchased the land to build an elderly housing complex, which remains incomplete.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston rejected the state's argument that Rhode Island should be the applicable authority. The high court reversed the appellate ruling.

Justice Stephen Breyer, who joined the majority opinion, indicated that it is possible that tribes not recognized by the federal government before the 1934 law might still have been under federal jurisdiction "even though the federal government did not believe so at the time." As an example, Breyer said, the government has acknowledged that some tribes were mistakenly left off a list the Interior Department compiled following the law's enactment.

But Breyer said he did not forsee that possibility for the Narragansetts.

Only Justice John Paul Stevens fully dissented from Thomas' opinion, which he called a "cramped reading" of the 1934 law.

A spokeswoman for Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Jack Killoy, an attorney for the Narragansett Indian Tribe, said he had not read the decision and could not immediately discuss it.

The case is Carcieri v. Salazar, 07-526.