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Court subjects Narragansett Tribe to all state laws

The state of Rhode Island can enforce its laws against members of the Narragansett Tribe for activities that occur on the reservation, a divided federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday.

By a 4-2 vote, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals said state troopers acted legally when they stormed the Narragansett Reservation on July 14, 2003, as part of a dispute over cigarette taxes. In a violent clash that was caught on television cameras and aired nationwide, officers arrested several tribal members, including Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas, and seized tribal property and cash.

The tribe went to court and argued that the raid violated its sovereignty. But the majority of judges on the 1st Circuit said the tribe freely surrendered its rights by agreeing to state jurisdiction in a special land claim settlement act passed by Congress back in 1983.

The Narragansetts "explicitly acknowledged that, with certain modest exceptions not applicable here, 'all laws of the state of Rhode Island shall be in full force and effect on the settlement lands,'" Judge Bruce M. Selya wrote in the 34-page decision, quoting the 1983 law.

An equally lengthy set of dissents filed by two other members of the court sharply disagreed with that conclusion. Over the course of 32 pages, Judge Kermit V. Lipez and Judge Juan R. Torruella blasted the state for its "Rambo-like raid" that ran roughshod over basic principles of tribal sovereignty.

Both judges said the majority read too much into the 1983 law. Tribal waivers of immunity must be explicit and unambiguous, they underscored in their dissents.

"It is clear that when tested against long-standing principles of Indian law, the sweeping asseverations made by the state regarding waiver and abrogation are lacking in substance. Tribal sovereignty, and concomitantly, tribal sovereign immunity, may not be stripped from an Indian tribe by statutory silence or by inference extracted from ambiguous language," Torruella wrote.

Lipez highlighted what he called the overreaching nature of the majority's decision. He said the 1st Circuit has adopted principles that erode the rights of dozens of tribes who have settled their land claims through acts of Congress or who fall under Public Law 280 or similar laws that grant jurisdiction to the state.

"Given this array of laws, I see no way to limit the majority's abrogation of the tribe's sovereign immunity, so that it does not also call into question the sovereign immunity claimed by the many tribes that hold lands brought under state jurisdiction by the several settlement acts" or Public Law 280, Lipez wrote in his dissent.

The starkly contrasting views are sure to spark another battle before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Narragansett Tribe plans to appeal the ruling, the lawyer who argued the case told The Providence Journal in a story published today.

Just two years ago, the justices considered a case with a similar set of facts. In California, a state that falls under Public Law 280, officials in Inyo County raided the casino owned by the Bishop-Pauite Tribe and seized tribal property.

The high court, by a unanimous vote, concluded that the tribe couldn't sue the county for the raid. But the justices left open the question of whether the county can enforce state law against the tribal government, a key issue in the Narragansett case.

The 1st Circuit majority answered that the tribe is indeed subject to state law. "It is plainly not the case, as the tribe would have it, that an Indian tribe can render any conceivable act on Indian lands (say, drug trafficking) impervious to state regulation by the simple expedient of labeling it 'tribal,'" Selya wrote.

"In sum, the tribe remains as free as ever to operate the smoke shop; it simply must comply with state law in the process," the ruling continued.

Despite the strong statements, the majority's repeated use of the phrase "settlement lands" appears to hold some benefit for the tribe. Lands taken into trust for the tribe after the 1983 act are not considered "settlement lands," so the state's laws may not apply there.

Tribal leaders across the nation have closely watched the dispute over the past three years. For many, it brought to light the harsh realities of past and present excursions on their rights.

"It is inexcusable that a tribal leader would be target of violence by Rhode Island law enforcement officers," said Brenda Soulliere at the time of the incident. Soulliere was vice-chair of the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians when the tribe's gaming facility was raided by the state of California in 1981. The tribe later prevailed at the Supreme Court.

En Banc Decision:
Narragansett Tribe v. Rhode Island (May 24, 2006)

En Banc Order:
Narragansett Tribe v. Rhode Island (June 8, 2005)

Prior Decision:
Narragansett Tribe v. Rhode Island (May 12, 2005)

Inyo County Decision:
Syllabus | Opinion [Ginsburg] | Concurrence [Stevens]

Nevada v. Hicks Decision:
Syllabus | Opinion | Concurrence (Souter) | Concurrence (Ginsburg) | Concurrence (O'Connor) | Concurrence (Stevens)

Relevant Links:
Narragansett Tribe -