U.S. Supreme Court’s Bay Mills Opinion Lauded as Tribal Sovereignty Victory

Tuesday's U.S. Supreme Court "Michigan v. Bay Mills" is victory for tribal sovereignty.

Tuesday’s U.S. Supreme Court “Michigan v. Bay Mills” is victory for tribal sovereignty.

WASHINGTON — Tribal leaders are calling Tuesday’s U.S. Supreme Court opinion in the “Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community” as a stunning victory for American Indian tribes, reaffirming the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity.

In 2010, the Bay Mills Indian Community, based in Brimley, Michigan, opened a off-reservation casino some 90 miles south in Vanderbilt in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

Arguing the Bay Mills Indian Community opened the casino without proper federal government permission on non-tribal land, the State of Michigan took its case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tuesday’s opinion was handed down with a 5-4 margin said the State of Michigan’s authority does not supersede tribal sovereignty.

The off-reservation casino has been closed since some time in 2011. After yesterday’s ruling, it was still unclear this morning when the tribe will reopen the Vanderbilt casino. When reached by telephone by the Native News Online, a tribal spokesperson the tribe is “studying the situation.”

However, the tribe did issue the following news release on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling:

“Congress and the Supreme Court have long recognized that a state cannot interfere with an Indian tribe’s sovereignty. We are gratified that the Court reaffirmed that longstanding principle today. Bay Mills, a federally recognized tribe, depends for its livelihood on revenues from gaming activities conducted in accordance with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The Court’s decision affords proper deference to Congress’ judgment, and it will ensure that tribes like Bay Mills can continue to fund tribal education and perform other sovereign functions.”

It remains unclear when the Vanderbilt casino will reopen.Praise for the Court’s opinion came from others in Indian country.

“This is a good day for tribal governments,” said National Congress of Indians President Brian Cladoosby and Chairman of the Swinomish Tribe.  “Congratulations to the Bay Mills Indian Community!  We always thought this case was an overreach by the State of Michigan. Tribal and state governments work together and find common ground all the time.  All governments are working to create jobs, educate our children, provide public safety and protect our environment. We find agreement on thousands of issues, but every now and then we disagree. When that happens, we have to negotiate solutions on a government-to-government basis. That takes leadership, and we can’t take each other to court. The Supreme Court agrees.”

Upon learning of the decision and the fact that Chief Justice Roberts voted in favor of tribal interests, NARF’s Executive Director John Echohawk’s initial response was a simple “WOW!”  After a sigh of relief, he stated:  “I am pleased that the Court today stood upon the foundational principles of Indian law that we are all familiar with, instead of changing the rules on us all the time.  The victory in this case is attributed to the hard work and dedication of the tribal leaders and attorneys for Bay Mills, as well as the on-going efforts of the Tribal Supreme Court Project.”

In parts of the opinion aside from the main holding, the Supreme Court found that the states can use other remedies to address issues off-reservation, including negotiations, permit enforcement, and lawsuits against tribal officials in their individual capacities.   A dissent written by Justice Thomas strongly disagreed with the holding, stating that sovereign immunity is a judicially created doctrine and could be modified by the Supreme Court.   However the majority emphasized that tribal sovereignty is an inherent right of Indian tribes recognized in a string of Supreme Court decisions from the founding of the United States.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly issued the following statement last evening:

“Tribes have won few victories at the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years, but today in a case with implications for every tribe in the country, our sovereignty was upheld. Tribal sovereignty is not an abstract concept to be curtailed at the whim of a state. It is the concrete foundation of a government-to-government relationship that has shaped the federal relationship with Native Americans. We commend the court for following precedent. The Navajo Nation remains cautiously optimistic about the ruling because while sovereign immunity was upheld, the Court indicates other tools at the state of Michigan’s disposal that erode sovereignty.”

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