School District Eyes Supreme Court Case on Indian Lands

By Mark Walsh — December 15, 2011 2 min read
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A case about Indian trust land granted review this week by the U.S. Supreme Court is being watched closely by a Michigan school district.

In fact, the Wayland Union school district, in southwest Michigan, joined a friend-of-the-court brief urging the justices to take up the case. The reason: The district and other local governments are reaping an unexpected windfall from their share of revenues from an Indian casino built on 147-acre parcel of land held in trust by the federal government for the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians.

A Michigan resident who opposes the casino sued the federal government to challenge the land acquisition. David Patchak argues that the federal government’s acquisition was unauthorized because the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band was not recognized as a tribe at the time of a 1934 federal law on Indian trust lands. (The Band won federal recognition in 1998.)

Patchak lost in federal district court, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in Washington, revived his suit in a decision last January. A panel of the appeals court said Patchak had standing to challenge the secretary of the Interior’s actions to acquire the land in trust for the Indian tribe because of the negative effect of the casino on him and his nearby property.

Both the Indian band, also known as the Gun Lake Tribe, and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken L. Salazar appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which granted review on Dec. 12 in Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians v. Patchak (No. 11-246) and Salazar v. Patchak (No. 11-247).

The $165 million Gun Lake Casino opened in February and, by all accounts, has been highly successful. It created 900 jobs, and under an agreement with the state of Michigan and local governments, it is sharing 2 percent of its slot machine revenues. In its first two months alone, the casino shared $2 million with the state and more than $500,000 with local governments.

The 2,800-student Wayland Union Schools received $195,000 in that first disbursement, the friend-of-the-court brief says. That revenue, and the promise of more, has allowed the district to cut preschool tuition rates by one-third, and to subsidize “pay-to-play” athletic fees that had been $100 per student per sport.

“The Band’s shared revenue will eliminate this fee and thus alleviate the financial burden on families of high school athletes,” the brief says. Also, the school district is using the new revenue to establish a scholarship fund for graduating seniors “to encourage families to stay in the Wayland area,” the brief says.

All these benefits are threatened by the possibility that the litigation will force the removal of the land from Indian trust status, and thus the closure of the casino.

The appeals court’s decision “threatens to unravel the tremendous economic benefits generated by the Band’s development of the trust lands,” the local governments’ brief says.

A Cooley Law School professor put it another way in an interview with The Grand Rapids Press. “They could have the world’s most expensive bingo hall” if the Indian trust status is removed, Professor Curt Benson told the paper.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the consolidated cases in March or April, with a decision expected by the end of June.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.

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