On June 18, 2012, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians [Gun Lake] v. Patchak. In that case, David Patchak challenged the authority of the Secretary of the Interior to take land into trust for the Gun Lake Band (Band). Patchak resides near the property that the Secretary acquired in trust, and alleged that a casino there would harm him by causing “an irreversible change in the rural character of the area” and “other aesthetic, socioeconomic, and environmental problems.” In challenging the Secretary’s decision, Patchak argued that the Indian Reorganization Act, in 25 U.S.C. § 465, did not authorize the Secretary to acquire property for the Band because the Band was not a federally recognized tribe when the IRA was adopted in 1934.
The claim raised two threshold questions: first, whether the United States had sovereign immunity from being sued by virtue of the Quiet Title Act (QTA); and second, whether Patchak had “prudential standing” (enough legal interest in the case) to be permitted to challenge the Secretary’s acquisition. The D.C. Circuit held for Patchak on both questions, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case. (See our General Memorandum 11-155 of December 21, 2011.) In an opinion delivered by Justice Kagan, the Court ruled against the Government and the Band on both questions. The decision was 8 to 1, with Justice Sotomayor filing the only dissenting opinion.
Sovereign Immunity and the Quiet Title Act
Patchak brought his claim under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), seeking to void the Secretary’s administrative decision to take the land into trust. The APA authorizes suits against the federal government for harm caused by agency action and waives the Government’s sovereign immunity for suits seeking relief other than monetary damages. However, the APA’s waiver expressly does not apply where another statute bars the suit. The QTA waives the Government’s sovereign immunity for a suit by a plaintiff asserting a “right, title, or interest” in real property held by the United States, but excludes trust or restricted Indian lands from that waiver.
Because the Government held the land in trust for the Band, the Government and the Band argued that the QTA’s Indian lands exclusion to the QTA’s waiver of sovereign immunity barred Patchak’s APA challenge. The Court, however, found that the QTA was not applicable at all to Patchak’s claim and therefore did not preserve the Government’s sovereign immunity from the suit. The Court reasoned that the Quiet Title Act concerns only quiet title actions in which the plaintiff asserts a competing ownership interest in the property at issue. Patchak, in contrast, asserted only “aesthetic, socioeconomic, and environmental” harms and did not claim any ownership interest in the Band’s trust land. Therefore, the APA’s waiver of sovereign immunity governed, and Patchak’s claim was not barred by the QTA’s Indian land exclusion.
Justice Sotomayor dissented; she believed the Quiet Title Act should be construed to implicitly prohibit a plaintiff like Patchak from challenging the Government’s title via the APA.
The Court next addressed whether or not Patchak had “prudential standing” to bring his action against the Government, as required by court decisions. Standing means a person has a genuine interest sufficient to justify a suit. To satisfy prudential standing, the interest asserted by the plaintiff must be within the “zone of interests” to be protected or regulated by the statute at issue – here, the IRA. The Government and the Band argued that Patchak’s claim was outside the IRA’s “zone of interest” because the IRA focuses on land acquisition, whereas Patchak’s interests related to the land’s use for a casino.
The Court took a liberal view of the “zone of interest” requirement, stating that the test “is not meant to be especially demanding” and that the test “forecloses suit only when a plaintiff’s ‘interests are so marginally related to or inconsistent with the purposes implicit in the statute that it cannot reasonably be assumed that Congress intended to permit the suit.'” Because part of the goal of the IRA is to foster Indian economic development, and because the acquisition of Indian land provides the foundation for that economic development, the Court found that Patchak had prudential standing to proceed with his claim.
Because the Patchak decision makes it easier to object to the Secretary’s taking land into trust for Indians and allows much more time to file suit (6 years instead of 30 days), there may well be many more lawsuits filed seeking to void land-in-trust decisions. Patchak’s case will now be remanded to the district court to hear the merits of Patchak’s claim that the Band was not under federal jurisdiction in 1934 and thus is ineligible to have land taken into trust under the IRA.
We will continue to monitor proceedings in this case, the outcome of which could have implications for tribes across the United States. In addition, we will monitor and report on legislative and administrative efforts to limit the impact of the Patchak decision on Indian Country. Those discussions already have begun and are likely to accelerate in the months ahead.