Donate Join Email List
Donate Join Email List

News & Blog

Supreme Court Rules State Cannot Sue Tribe Citing Sovereign Immunity

5/29/14 under




The United States Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the State of Michigan cannot sue the Bay Mills Indian Community to prevent its operation of a casino on land it had purchased within the state’s borders, but outside its territory.

The Tribe claimed it could operate a casino there because the property qualified as Indian land, but Michigan disagreed and sued.

By a 5-4 decision with Justice Elena Kagan writing for the majority, the court held Michigan’s suit against Bay Mills is barred by tribal sovereign immunity. Kagan was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor with Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel Alito dissenting

In delivering the opinion of the court, Justice Kagan stated: “The question in this case is whether tribal sovereign immunity bars Michigan’s suit against the Bay Mills Indian Community for opening a casino outside Indian lands. We hold that immunity protects Bay Mills from this legal action.”

“Indian tribes have immunity even when a suit arises from off-reservation commercial activity,” she added.

However, the state has numerous options for stopping the Bay Mills Indian Community from operating an off-reservation gambling hall – including bringing criminal charges against tribe officials if it chooses, Kagan said, according to The Detroit Free Press.

But as a domestic sovereign entity, the tribe is protected from being sued by the state unless Congress rules otherwise, Kagan said. She sent the case back to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals for disposal, leaving unknown for now whether the small casino could someday reopen, according to the Detroit Free Press.

“Congress and the Supreme Court have long recognized that a state cannot interfere with an Indian tribe’s sovereignty,” Bay Mills’ lawyer Neal Katyal said, according to the Detroit Free Press. “We are gratified that the court reaffirmed that longstanding principal today. Bay Mills, a federally recognized tribe, depends for its livelihood on revenues from gaming activities.”

In 2010, the Tribe opened a gaming facility in Vanderbilt, a small village in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula about 125 miles from its reservation. Bay Mills bought the property with accrued interest from a federal appropriation which had been placed in a “land trust.” According to the legislation, any land so acquired “shall be held as Indian lands are held” and Bay Mills contended that the property it bought was “Indian land” and claimed authority to operate a casino there.

Michigan disagreed and sued Bay Mills alleging that the casino violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) because it was located outside Indian lands.

The Court noted that Michigan highlighted an anomaly of the IGRA statute, which enables a state to sue an Indian tribe for illegal gaming inside, but not outside, Indian country.

“Why would Congress authorize a state to obtain a federal injunction against illegal tribal gaming on Indian lands, but not on lands subject to the state’s own sovereign jurisdiction,” Michigan asked.

That question seemingly has no answer.

Truth be told, the Court stated, such anomalies often arise from statutes for no other reason that Congress typically legislates by parts – addressing one thing without examining all others that might merit comparable treatment.

More News View All

Support Running Strong!

We invite you to make a difference in the lives of American Indian youth today by donating to our cause.