May 27, 2014

Supreme Court Update: Supreme Court Decides Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community

On May 27, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community, No. 12–515, holding that sovereign immunity bars a state from suing in federal court to enjoin a tribe from violating Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) outside of Indian lands.

IGRA creates a federal legal framework for regulating gaming on Indian lands and abrogates tribal sovereign immunity for suits involving that gaming, but it does not expressly address gaming activity by tribes off Indian lands. In 2010, the Bay Mills Indian Community (Bay Mills), a federally recognized Indian tribe, opened a casino in Vanderbilt, Michigan, more than 100 miles from the Bay Mills Reservation. It was later determined that the lands on which the casino was built are not Indian lands. Shortly after the casino opened, the State of Michigan (among others) filed suit against Bay Mills, claiming that the operation of the casino violated state and federal law, including IGRA. The district court entered a preliminary injunction ordering Bay Mills to cease operating the casino. The Sixth Circuit reversed, vacating the preliminary injunction and permitting Bay Mills to reopen the casino (Bay Mills opted to keep the casino closed pending the outcome of litigation). Michigan petitioned for Supreme Court review.

The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that tribes enjoy sovereign immunity in suits involving gaming off of Indian lands. The Court maintained the status quo by concluding that Congress has not clearly abrogated tribal sovereign immunity through federal law regarding IGRA-related claims, noting that IGRA only allows state suits against tribes, and thus jurisdiction over such suits, involving gaming on Indian lands. Thus, tribes will remain immune from suits regarding illegal gaming off of Indian lands unless an individual tribe waives immunity or Congress changes IGRA to allow such suits. Though this ruling may alter the relationships between states and tribes, the Court left open alternative methods of stopping illegal tribal gaming off of Indian lands: (1) waiver of tribal immunity through contract or compact, (2) injunctions against individual tribal officials, and (3) state law claims against individuals directly conducting the illegal gaming on non-Indian lands.

Justice Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Sotomayor filed a concurring opinion. Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion and Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Scalia, Ginsburg, and Alito joined. Justice Ginsburg also filed a dissenting opinion.

Download the Opinion of the Court

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