Carcieri v. Salazar

PETITIONER: Donald L. Carcieri, Governor of Rhode Island
RESPONDENT: Ken L. Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, et al.
LOCATION: Narragansett Tribal Parcel

DOCKET NO.: 07-526
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

CITATION: 555 US (2009)
GRANTED: Feb 25, 2008
ARGUED: Nov 03, 2008
DECIDED: Feb 24, 2009

Deanne E. Maynard - Assistant to the Solicitor General, argued the cause for the respondent
Theodore B. Olson - argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

In 1991, the Narragansett Indian Tribe purchased a 31-acre parcel of land in Charlestown, RI to build a housing complex for the elderly. The U.S. Department of the Interior, acting at the tribe's request, moved to take the land into federal trust, thereby placing it largely under federal and tribal control, in 1998. However, Rhode Island officials opposed the move, claiming that the Department of the Interior lacked the proper authority because the Narragansett tribe was not recognized until nearly 50 years after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act took effect. The U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island upheld the action, stating that Rhode Island was taking an unnecessarily narrow view of the law.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the district court's decision and approved of its reasoning. In seeking Supreme Court review to determine whether the time of tribal recognition should be dispositive on this issue, Rhode Island noted that "the future allocation of civil and criminal jurisdiction between states and tribes over a potentially unlimited amount of land hangs in the balance."


Does the federal government have the ability to take land into trust for American Indian tribes recognized after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934?

Media for Carcieri v. Salazar

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 03, 2008 in Carcieri v. Salazar

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - February 24, 2009 in Carcieri v. Salazar

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Thomas has our opinion this morning in case 07-526, Carcieri versus Salazar.

Clarence Thomas:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

Under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the -- which I would refer to -- I will refer to as IRA, the Federal Government is authorized to take land and hold it in trust for Indian Tribes for the purpose of providing land for Indians.

The Act defines the term “Indian” to “include all persons of Indian descent who are members of any organized Indian Tribe now under federal jurisdiction.”

In 1998, the Federal Government acting through the Secretary of the Interior sought to exercise its authority under IRA and accept into trust 31 acres of land owned by the Narragansett Indian Tribe and located in Charlestown, Rhode Island.

The State of Rhode Island, its governor in the town opposed the trust acquisition which would result in federal rather than local supervision of the land.

They argued that the Narragansett Tribe was not under federal jurisdiction when the IRA was enacted in 1934 and was not recognized by the Federal Government until 1983.

Thus, they argued, the Secretary lacked authority to take land into trust for members of the Narragansett Tribe.

The Department of Interior Board of Indian Appeals, the District Court and the Court of Appeals all rejected this challenge and upheld the legality of the acquisition.

The Court of Appeals determined that statutory phrase now under federal jurisdiction, is ambiguous because it could refer either to tribal status at the time the IRA was enacted in 1934 or at the time the Secretary sought to take land into trust.

Because the Court of Appeals found both interpretations to be reasonable, it deferred to the Secretary’s view that it could exercise its trust authority for the members of any tribe that the Interior Department had formally recognized even if that recognition came after 1934.

In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

The phrase “now under federal jurisdiction” refers to those tribes that were under federal jurisdiction when the IRA was enacted in 1934.

This reading is consistent with the plain and ordinary meaning of the term “now” and aligns with other provisions of the IRA in which Congress used the distinct phrase “now” or “hereafter” to refer to post-enactment events.

Our reading is also consistent with the interpretation given the word “now” by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs at the time of the statute's enactment.

In this case, neither the Secretary nor the tribe defended the acquisition by arguing that the tribe was under federal jurisdiction in 1934.

And the evidence in the records of this question is to the contrary.

We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Justice Breyer has filed a concurring opinion.

Justice Souter has filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part in which Justice Ginsburg has joined.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion.