HomePublicationsNewsletter ArchiveUncategorisedU.S. Supreme Court Rules Michigan Cannot Sue Bay Mills Tribe in Vanderbilt Casino Case

On Tuesday, May 27, 2014, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the State of Michigan is prohibited from suing the Bay Mills Indian Community (the “Tribe”) to enjoin the further operation of the Tribe’s casino in Vanderbilt, Michigan on lands approximately 125 miles south of its reservation in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  In a 5-4 decision, the Court found that the Tribe’s sovereign immunity protects it from lawsuits unless Congress sets forth specific areas in which this immunity is abrogated.  The State of Michigan had argued, among other things, that provision of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (“IGRA”) abrogate the Tribe’s sovereign immunity thus allowing the State’s suit to enjoin casino gaming on off-reservation property.  The Court disagreed, holding:

“The abrogation of immunity in IGRA applies to gaming on, but not off, Indian lands. We will not rewrite Congress’s handiwork. Nor will we create a freestanding exception to tribal immunity for all off-reservation commercial conduct…Accordingly, Michigan may not sue Bay Mills to enjoin the Vanderbilt casino, but must instead use available alternative means to accomplish that object.”  572 U.S. ___ (2014).

Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagen pointed out that, although Michigan could not sue to enjoin the operation of the Tribe’s casino in Vanderbilt, it did retain the authority to bring suit against tribal officials or employees seeking an injunction against an illegal and unlicensed gambling operation under state law; and could further utilize the Michigan penal code and prosecute “…anyone who maintains – or even frequents – an unlawful gambling establishment.”  Id.

Following the issuance of the Supreme Court’s opinion, Bay Mills Tribal officials released a statement, saying “Congress and the Supreme Court have long recognized that a state cannot interfere with an Indian tribe’s sovereignty…We are gratified that the Court reaffirmed that longstanding principle today.  Bay Mills, a federally recognized tribe, depends for its livelihood on revenues from gaming activities conducted in accordance with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.  The Court’s decision affords proper deference to Congress’ judgment, and it will ensure that tribes like Bay Mills can continue to fund tribal education and perform other sovereign functions.”

Conversely, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette stated, “[t]oday the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the State's ability to restrain the illegal expansion of tribal gaming on state lands.  The 5-4 decision upheld the injunctive power of states to sue tribal leaders to shut down illegal casinos, and reaffirmed the states' authority to bring criminal charges against anyone engaging in illegal gaming on state lands."  A statement issued by Mr. Schuette’s office also provided that “[t]he Supreme Court's ruling remands this case to district court for further proceedings.  On remand, the State will continue its suit to close down the illegal casino.  While the district court will not be able to order the Tribe as an entity to refrain from breaking state law as A.G. Schuette had originally requested, it will be able to order specific tribal officials to follow state law.  Using this tool and others identified by the Supreme Court, the State will continue to enforce Michigan's laws against illegal gaming.”

This matter arrived at the U.S. Supreme Court after the Vanderbilt casino was closed following the entry of a preliminary injunction by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan in March, 2011. The Bay Mills Tribe then appealed this decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the decision of the District Court last August. The State of Michigan then appealed the Sixth Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court.  In addition to briefs filed by the State of Michigan, the Bay Mills Tribe and the Federal Government,  seventeen states also filed amicus briefs agreeing with the position of the State of Michigan, while additional amicus briefs in support of the Bay Mills Tribe were filed on behalf of more than fifty federally recognized Indian tribes and other tribal organizations.

A copy of the Supreme Court opinion can be found here: http://1.usa.gov/1mzxsIA



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