House passes bill to shield Gun Lake Tribe casino from litigation

The Gun Lake Casino in Wayland, Michigan. Photo from Google+

The House voted 359-64 on Tuesday night to pass S.1603, the Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act.

The bill ensures that land already held in trust for the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, also known as the Gun Lake Tribe, can't be challenged in federal court. It shields the Gun Lake Casino from an ongoing lawsuit filed by a non-Indian man who is seeking some sort of monetary payout because he lives about three miles from the facility.

"This bill is necessary to confirm the trust status of the Gun Lake Tribe's land because the United States Supreme Court ruling holding in Carcieri v. Salazar casts doubt on the lawfulness of the [Interior] Secretary's acquisition of the trust property," Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Washington), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said during debate on the bill on Monday.

Hastings was referring to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar. In February 2009, the justices held that the Bureau of Indian Affairs. can only approve land-into-trust applications for tribes that were "under federal jurisdiction" as of 1934.

The Gun Lake Tribe gained formal recognition in 1999. But no one questioned the BIA's decision to place the casino site in trust until David Patchak, the non-Indian party, filed his lawsuit.

That led to yet another Supreme Court decision -- Salazar v. Patchak. In June 2012, the justices held that the Patchak's lawsuit could proceed even though the casino had already opened and was providing jobs and revenues to the local community.

"Since the Supreme Court's decision in 2009, the Carcieri decision, the status of Indian lands across the country have been undermined, and there has been an uptick in frivolous suits against tribal lands," Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona) said on Monday. "One such lawsuit, the Patchak case, has put a Michigan tribe's trust land, upon which its casino supports approximately 1,000 much-needed jobs was constructed, very much in jeopardy."

Grijalva was pleased that the House moved quickly on the bill after it passed the Senate in June. But he noted that the situation could be avoided if Congress passed a Carcieri fix.

"I think unless and until we have a Carcieri fix legislation enacted, these types of piecemeal bills will become routinely needed to protect tribal lands that are rightfully held in trust," Grijalva said.

The fix, however, remains stalled. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved S.2188 in June but there's been little movement on the Senate floor.

Meanwhile, neither H.R.666 and H.R.279 have received a hearing before Hasting's committee.

But the Gun Lake Tribe will be able to rest easy now that both chambers of Congress have passed the bill. It can now be sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.

Once it becomes law, the bill presumably will lead to the dismissal of Patchak's lawsuit. He recently hired a high-powered law firm led by former Sen. John Edwards (D-North Carolina) to handle the case.

Judge Richard J. Leon, who handled the case since its inception, resumed proceedings earlier this month. He criticized Patchak for waiting two years after the Supreme Court ruling to seek a monetary settlement.

Debate on S.1603, the Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act:

Supreme Court Decisions:
Salazar v. Patchak | Carcieri v. Salazar

Supreme Court Oral Argument in Salazar v. Patchak:

Supreme Court Oral Argument in Carcieri v. Salazar:

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