Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community

RESPONDENT:Bay Mills Indian Community
LOCATION:United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan at Grand Rapids

DOCKET NO.: 12-515
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)

CITATION: 572 US (2014)
GRANTED: Jun 24, 2013
ARGUED: Dec 02, 2013
DECIDED: May 27, 2014

Edwin S. Kneedler – Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States as amicus curiae supporting the respondents
John J. Bursch – Michigan Solicitor General, for the petitioner
Neal Kumar Katyal – for the respondents

Facts of the case

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) provides that if certain requirements are met, including a compact between the state and the tribe, an Indian tribe can operate a casino on Indian lands. Under the Michigan Indian Land Claims Settlement Act, lands bought with funds from a congressionally established trust are Indian lands. On November 3, 2010, the Bay Mills Indian Community, a federally recognized Indian tribe with a reservation located in northern Michigan, opened a small casino in the town of Vanderbilt, Michigan, on lands purchased with funds from this trust. The state of Michigan sued for closure of the casino by claiming that the Bay Mills casino violated state gaming laws, as well as various provisions of its Tribal-State compact. The district court entered a preliminary injunction ordering Bay Mills to stop the gambling at the Vanderbilt casino. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit vacated the injunction and held that the district court lacked jurisdiction over some of the plaintiffs’ claims, while Bay Mills’ sovereign immunity bars the others.


Does a federal court have jurisdiction over activity that violates the IGRA, but takes place outside of Indian lands?

In such a case, does tribal sovereign immunity prevent a state from suing in federal court?

Media for Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – December 02, 2013 in Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 27, 2014 in Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community

Justice Kagan has our opinion in this morning in case 12-515, Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community.

This case involves a dispute between the State of Michigan and the Bay Mills Indian Community over a casino that the tribe opened on land it owned outside its reservation.

The State sued the tribe alleging that it could not lawfully run an off-reservation casino.

Today, we hold that the tribe’s sovereign immunity bars that suit.

Sovereign immunity is a legal doctrine that prevents suits against governments and it generally protects federally recognized tribes.

But a tribe’s immunity like its sovereignty more broadly is subject to control by Congress.

So if Congress clearly authorizes a suit against the tribe, that suit can go forward.

Michigan first argues here that Congress authorized this suit in a section of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that allows a State to sue a tribe to halt illegal gaming located on Indian lands.

But the very premise of Michigan’s suit is that Bay Mills’ casino is located off Indian lands.

So by its term, that authorization does not apply to this suit.

Michigan tries its hand at a couple of ways around the statutory language but its main argument is that it just doesn’t make sense for Congress to have allowed a State to sue a tribe for gaming on an Indian reservation but not for gaming outside of reservation on lands subject to the jurisdiction of the State itself.

There are a couple of things wrong with that argument.

First, we don’t rewrite clear statutes just because we think Congress might sensibly have made them broader.

And second, the limitation Congress wrote into the statute has a perfectly credible reason behind it.

Congress enacted the law in response to a decision of ours holding that States lack all regulatory authority over gaming on Indian lands.

The law was meant to give them that missing authority.

But when the tribe acts outside its reservation, on a State’s owned sovereign lands, the State has lots of tools other than suing a tribe to enforce its law.

As our opinion details, those tools enable the State to close an illegal off-reservation casino without breaching the tribe’s immunity.

Of course, Congress has not authorized the suit.

Michigan makes another more dramatic argument.

It urges us to hold the tribal immunity simply does not extend the suits involving off-reservation commercial conduct.

If that’s right, Michigan could bring the suit against Bay Mills even if Congress had not authorized it.

But to agree with Michigan on that score, we would have to overrule a case from about 15 years ago called Kiowa, because there, we specifically declined to carve out an exception to tribal immunity for off-reservation commercial conduct.

And this court does not overturn its precedence lately.

To do so, it demands special justification.

Michigan does not offer any special justification here.

In fact, all it does is to rehash arguments we rejected already in Kiowa.

And in that decision, we explained that all those arguments as well as counterarguments about how far tribal immunity should extend are properly directed to Congress that it is fundamentally Congress’s job not the Courts to determine the scope of that immunity.

Everything we said in Kiowa remains true today except more so, because since then, Congress has reflected on our decision in Kiowa and chose not to limit tribal immunity in a case like this one.

Having held that this decision is up to Congress, we will not reverse ourselves now just because some may think its conclusion wrong.

The decision below from the Sixth Circuit is affirmed.

Justice Sotomayor has filed a concurring opinion.

Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Scalia, Ginsburg and Alito have joined.

Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsburg have also filed separate dissenting opinions.