Cabazon at 30: Do the Canons of Construction of Federal Indian Law Remain Viable?

by Ralph A. Rossum, author of The Supreme Court and Tribal Gaming

This spring marks the thirtieth anniversary of the United State Supreme Court’s decision in California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians (1987), the landmark decision that gave the nation tribal gaming. The most recent statistics available from the National Indian Gaming Commission show what an enormous impact Cabazon (along with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act [IGRA] of 1988) has had:  In 2015, 238 gaming tribes with 474 gaming facilities operating in 28 states generated $29.9 billion in gross revenues. These revenues have helped to promote tribal economic development and self-sufficiency and to fund strong tribal governments.

The Court ruled on behalf of the Cabazon Band because it employed long-established canons of construction of federal Indian law; it construed ambiguous language in Public Law 280 to the tribe’s benefit and held that California could not exercise civil-regulatory jurisdiction in Indian County. But, perhaps because of the financial success of the gaming tribes and their aggressive use of casino profits to influence the political process, advance tribal interests, and negotiate more favorable state-tribal gaming compacts (through lobbying, campaign contributions, endorsement of candidates, and political organization), the Supreme Court since Cabazon has become decidedly less inclined to employ these canons to the tribes’ advantage. With one exception, the Court has handed the tribes one defeat after another.

The one exception is United States v. Lara (2004). In Duro v. Reina (1990), the Supreme Court held that an Indian tribe lacked sovereign authority to prosecute Indians who were not members of that tribe. Disagreeing with that decision, Congress the next year amended the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 in order to “recognize and affirm” the “inherent power” of Indian tribes to exercise criminal jurisdiction over “all Indians.” In Lara, the Court held that this congressional recognition was a relaxation of previous restrictions that Congress had placed on the exercise of the tribes’ inherent sovereign authority and not a delegation of federal prosecutorial power to them, and that, therefore, a federal prosecution of Billy Jo Lara for assaulting a federal police officer did not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Federal Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, where he had previously been prosecuted for and convicted of “violence to a policeman” under the law of an Indian tribe of which he was not a member. The Court’s decision was, from the tribes’ point-of-view, a gratifying re-affirmation of the concept of inherent tribal sovereignty.

Lara dealt with the criminal jurisdiction of tribal courts. Four years later in Plains Commerce Bank v. Long Family Land and Cattle Company (2008), the Supreme Court addressed the civil jurisdiction of tribal courts, and, by then, its turn against the tribes was clearly apparent. Plains Commerce Bank, a non-Indian bank, sold land it owned in fee simple on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation to non-Indians. The Longs, an Indian couple who had been leasing the land with an option to purchase, claimed the bank discriminated against them by selling the parcel to non-Indians on terms more favorable than the bank offered to sell it to them. The couple sued in tribal court, claiming discrimination, breach of contract, and bad faith. Over the objection of the Plains Commerce Bank, the tribal court concluded that it had jurisdiction and an Indian jury ruled against the bank. The court awarded the Longs damages plus interest and also gave the Longs an option to purchase that portion of the fee land they still occupied, nullifying the bank’s sale of the land to non-Indians. In a 5–4 decision, Chief Justice Roberts emphasized how limited the Court’s understanding of tribal sovereignty was; he underscored that “tribes do not, as a general matter, possess authority over non-Indians who come within their borders,” and pronounced that “this general rule . . . is particularly strong when the nonmember’s activity occurs on land owned in fee simple by non-Indians.”  He noted that “our cases have made clear that once tribal land is converted into fee simple, the tribe loses plenary jurisdiction over it.” On that basis, he held that the “Tribal Court lacks jurisdiction to hear the Longs’ discrimination claim because the Tribe lacks the civil authority to regulate the Bank’s sale of its fee land.”

In the spring of 2008, I attended a conference on tribal sovereignty at the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America; the Plains Commerce Bank case was about to be argued before the Supreme Court, and several tribal leaders and their attorneys were present. I learned from their commentaries that parties filing amicus briefs on behalf of the Long Family were admonished to avoid using the term, tribal sovereignty, for fear that the Court’s reaction to its use would be negative.

In Carcieri v. Salazar (2009), the Court was called upon to interpret the provision of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (IRA) authorizing the secretary of the interior to acquire land and hold it in trust “for the purpose of providing land for Indians.”  The IRA defines Indian to “include all persons of Indian descent who are members of any recognized tribe now under Federal jurisdiction.” The Narragansett Tribe in Rhode Island, which lost federal recognition in 1880 but regained it in 1983, asked the secretary of the interior to accept land into federal trust to reestablish its reservation, and the secretary complied. The tribe asserted that it would use the land to build apartments, but the State of Rhode Island worried that the Narragansett might also use it to build a casino and that it would lose real estate taxes if the land were placed in trust. Consequently, Rhode Island sued, arguing that the secretary lacked the authority to acquire the land in question because the phrase now under Federal jurisdiction meant under jurisdiction in 1934 when the act was passed. The lower federal courts concluded that the meaning of now was ambiguous (because now could mean currently) and that under the canons of construction customarily applied under federal Indian law, the IRA was to be liberally construed in favor of the Indians, with all ambiguities resolved in their favor, and with tribal property rights and sovereignty preserved unless Congress’s intent to the contrary was clear and unambiguous. The Supreme Court, however, reversed. Justice Thomas declined to apply the canons and held for a six-member majority that “the phrase ‘now under Federal jurisdiction’ refers to a tribe that was under federal jurisdiction at the time of the statute’s enactment.” Interestingly, Justice Stevens, who dissented in Cabazon in which the canons of construction were applied, dissented here because they were not: “The Court ignores the ‘principle deeply rooted in [our] Indian jurisprudence’ that ‘statutes are to be construed liberally in favor of the Indians.’ See Cohen[‘s Handbook of Federal Indian Law] §2.02(1), p. 119 (‘The basic Indian law canons of construction require that treaties, agreements, statutes, and executive orders be liberally construed in favor of the Indians.’).”

In Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians v. Patchack (2012), the Court continued to complicate efforts by tribes to bring land into federal trust for gaming purposes The band, an Indian tribe federally recognized in 1999, requested that the secretary take into trust on its behalf a tract of land in Wayland Township, Michigan, which it intended to use “for gaming purposes.” The secretary took title to the property in 2009, one month before the Carcieri decision. David Patchak, who lived nearby, filed suit in federal district court asserting that the IRA did not authorize the secretary to acquire the property because the band was not a federally recognized tribe when the IRA was enacted. Alleging a variety of economic, environmental, and aesthetic harms as a result of the band’s proposed use of the property to operate a casino, he requested injunctive and declaratory relief reversing the secretary’s decision to take title to the land. Without reaching the merits, the district court dismissed his suit, ruling that he lacked standing to sue, only to be reversed by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In an 8–1 vote, the Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court and held that Patchak had standing to challenge the secretary’s acquisition of the land. Speaking for the Court, Justice Kagan argued that the IRA requires the secretary to acquire land with its eventual use in mind, after assessing the potential conflicts that use might create. And, she continued, because the IRA encompasses the land’s use, neighbors to that use (like Patchak) are reasonable challengers of the secretary’s decisions, and their interests, whether economic, environmental, or aesthetic, come within the IRA’s regulatory ambit.

In Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community (2014), Justice Kagan held for a five-member majority that tribal sovereignty prevented Michigan from suing the tribe in question for operating a casino located outside of Indian country because Congress in IGRA had not delegated to the states that power.  That would seem to be a victory for the tribes, and a reemergence of a more sympathetic Court, but the tribe’s victory was pyrrhic, for Justice Kagan went on to make clear that Michigan could “resort to other mechanisms, including legal actions against the responsible [tribal] individuals” who were operating the casino.

And, finally, in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (2015), Justice Alito for a five-member majority refused to construe liberally the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, enacted to help preserve the cultural identity and heritage of Indian tribes, and thereby prevent a non-Indian family, proceeding under state law, from adopting an Indian child. To do otherwise, as Justice Thomas pointed out in his concurrence, would oblige the Court to accept an unconstitutional law: “The Constitution does not grant Congress power to override state law whenever that law happens to be applied to an Indian.”

As a result of its rulings in Plains Commerce Bank, Carcieri, Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish, Bay Mills, and Adoptive Couple, tribal leaders now seek to keep cases from reaching the Supreme Court, believing that it is better to accept adverse decisions by lower courts, where the impact is geographically limited, than risk having those adverse decisions affirmed by the Supreme Court and applied nationally.

In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), Chief Justice Marshall described the tribes as being in “a state of pupilage.” Because not grown up, they needed the Court’s solicitude and the protection of what developed into the canons of construction of federal Indian law. Cabazon allowed the tribes (or at least the gaming tribes) to grow up. The political muscle these tribes now exercise seems to have convinced the Court that they no longer need the Court’s (or the canons’) protection. Thirty years ago, tribal leaders celebrated Cabazon as a great victory; it was, but its legacy has proven to be more complex and challenging than they imagined at the time.


Ralph A. Rossum is the Salvatori Professor of American Constitutionalism at Claremont McKenna College. He is the author of multiple UPK titles, including Antonin Scalia’s Jurisprudence, Understanding Clarence Thomas & Text and Tradition.