Patchak v. Zinke

Facts of the Case

Petitioner, David Patchak, sued the Secretary of the Interior for taking land into trust on behalf of an Indian Tribe. While his suit was pending in the District Court, Congress enacted the Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act (Gun Lake Act or Act), which provides that suits relating to the land “shall not be filed or maintained in a Federal court and shall be promptly dismissed.” Patchak contends that, in enacting this statute, Congress impermissibly infringed the judicial power that Article III of the Constitution vests exclusively in the Judicial Branch. Based on §2(b), the District Court entered summary judgment against Patchak and dismissed his suit for lack of jurisdiction. The D. C. Circuit affirmed, holding that the language of the Gun Lake Act makes plain that Congress has stripped federal courts of subject matter jurisdiction over suits, like Patchak’s, that relate to the Bradley Property. The D. C. Circuit rejected Patchak’s argument that §2(b) violates Article III of the Constitution. According to the D.C. Circuit, Article III does not prohibit Congress from supplying new law.


Does a statute that directs the federal courts to “promptly dismiss” a pending lawsuit but that does not amend the underlying substantive or procedural laws violate the Constitution’s separation of powers principles?


In a plurality opinion authored by Justice Thomas, the Court affirmed the ruling by the D.C. Circuit, concluding that Section 2(b) of the Gun Lake Act did not violate Article III of the Constitution. The Court stated that it was not an impermissible exercise of legislative power for Congress to change the law applicable to pending lawsuits, even if it made one side much more likely to prevail. The Court distinguished this scenario from legislative attempts to compel a particular result under old law, which would have violated Article III. The Court explained that by stripping federal courts of jurisdiction in actions relating to the property at issue, §2(b) “changed” the law, and that making this type of change was a valid exercise of legislative power. Justice Breyer filed a concurring opinion. Justice Ginsburg filed a concurring opinion, and Justice Sotomayor joined. Justice Sotomayor filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, and Justices Kennedy and Gorsuch joined.

Case Information

  • Citation: 583 US _ (2018)
  • Granted: May 1, 2017
  • Argued: Nov 7, 2017
  • Decided Feb 27, 2018