On February 27, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Patchak v. Zinke, No. 16-498. No opinion commanded a majority of the Court, but six justices concluded that the plaintiff’s lawsuit under the Indian Reorganization Act challenging the authority of the Secretary of the Interior to take land into trust was properly dismissed.
In the early 2000s, the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians (the Band) asked the Secretary of the Interior to use its authority under the Indian Reorganization Act to take a 147-acre parcel of land in Michigan known as the Bradley Property into trust so that the Band could build a casino there. Before the Secretary ultimately did so in 2009, neighboring landowner David Patchak sued, arguing that the Secretary lacked authority to take the land into trust. In Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians v. Patchak, 567 U.S.209 (2012) (Patchak I), the Supreme Court rejected the argument that the Secretary was immune from suit and remanded for further proceedings to determine whether the Secretary violated the Indian Reorganization Act in taking the land into trust for the Band.
While the lawsuit was pending post-remand, Congress enacted the Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act, which stated that lawsuits “relating to” the Bradley Property “shall not be filed or maintained in a Federal court and shall be promptly dismissed.” The Secretary then moved for summary judgment, which Patchak opposed on the ground that Congress impermissibly infringed on the powers of the judiciary under Article III of the Constitution in enacting the Gun Lake Act. The district court agreed with the Secretary and dismissed Patchak’s lawsuit. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed.
The Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s judgment dismissing Patchak’s lawsuit, though no opinion garnered a majority. Justice Thomas’s plurality opinion concluded that the Gun Lake Act did not impermissibly infringe on the judicial power because Congress has the power to pass laws that apply retroactively to pending lawsuits, even when it ensures that one side wins. The plurality opinion reiterated the rule that Congress violates Article III when it “compels findings or results under old law” (as would be the case if it passed a law that said, “in Smith v. Jones, Smith wins”), but does not violate Article III when it “changes the law.”
Applied to this dispute, the plurality concluded that the Gun Lake Act did not violate Article III because it stripped federal courts of jurisdiction of all suits “relating to” the property at issue, regardless of who brought them.
Justice Thomas announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which Justices Breyer, Alito, and Kagan joined. Justice Breyer also filed a concurring opinion. Justice Ginsburg filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Sotomayor joined. Justice Sotomayor also filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Kennedy and Gorsuch joined.