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U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Tribal Sovereignty...For Now

May 27, 2014

Indian Country won a rare victory today as the U.S. Supreme Court upheld tribal sovereign immunity, ruling in favor of the Bay Mills Indian Community [Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community]. Although sovereign immunity from suit was upheld, the Court points to other tools at the state of Michigan's disposal to deter a Bay Mills gaming facility. 
 
NAFOA will be hosting a webinar on Thursday, May 29 to discuss the Court's ruling and to examine the likely impacts it will have on tribal sovereignty and tribal economies. The webinar will also examine other pending state actions, which could affect tribal sovereignty, potentially disturbing the status quo set forth by today's ruling. 
 
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Bay Mills, dismissing the state's lawsuit over an off-reservation casino, asserting that it is barred by tribal sovereign immunity. This is a significant win for Indian Country, as tribal sovereign immunity has been upheld by the highest court in the United States. It is an unexpected ruling; many were concerned that the bench would use the Bay Mills case as an opportunity to curtail tribal sovereign immunity. 
 
The state of Michigan filed suit against Bay Mills in 2010 for allegedly opening an off-reservation casino without permission from the U.S. government and in violation of a state compact. A federal district court issued an injunction, ordering the closure of the casino. Bay Mills appealed the decision arguing that the federal district court lacked jurisdiction and that the tribe had sovereign immunity. The lower court's injunction was dismissed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. The state sought certiorari, which was granted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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