Big Lagoon Rancheria v. State of California A significant victory for Indian Country
TAHOLAH, WA (6/10/15) — A unanimous decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals issued Thursday, June 4, in favor of the Big Lagoon Rancheria in a dispute regarding the State of California’s failure to negotiate in good faith was a landmark case for tribes throughout the country, including the Quinault Nation, according to Quinault President Fawn Sharp.
The decision, made en banc by the Ninth Circuit Court ruling in Big Lagoon Rancheria v. State of California marks a significant victory for Indian Country and settles the uncertainty created by a now-vacated decision by the court in January 2014. Thursday’s decision holds that challenges to the trust status of lands and the federal recognition of an Indian tribe can only be brought pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act (APA)*.
In other words, a party cannot attack collaterally a BIA trust decision outside the framework of the APA. In this particular case, the State of California “failed to file the appropriate APA action and because such an APA challenge would be time-barred,” the Ninth Circuit held that the State could not prevail on its claims. The decision is an affirmation of a U.S. District Court’s decision that the state had failed to negotiate in good faith and ruled that the tribe can conduct gaming under the Indian Gaming Resources Act (IGRA), subject only to the Secretary of the Interior’s approval of the tribe’s gaming compact.
“This holding is a major victory for all of Indian Country and for American justice,” said President Sharp. “Among other things, it will protect the final decisions of the Bureau of Indian Affairs from collateral attacks in litigation after the expiration of administrative and legal remedies. It clarifies that the status of tribal trust property is an issue separate from the obligation of states to negotiate in good faith under IGRA. The decision sets a positive precedent for other federal courts and will help protect and preserve the legal status of tribal trust lands throughout the country.
The case began as a bad-faith suit filed against the State of California. Relying on Carcieri v. Salazar, the state argued that the BIA lacked the authority to take land into trust on behalf of the tribe because the tribe was not under federal jurisdiction in 1934. In that case, the state claimed the tribe was not entitled to good faith negotiations under IGRA because the parcel in question was not properly taken into trust by the BIA. In January 2014, a divided three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit held that the tribe was not “under federal jurisdiction in 1934” and that its trust property was therefore not “Indian lands” for purposes of IGRA. This ruling had been a serious blow to the tribe and to Indian Country because it opened the door to collateral Carcieri attacks on BIA fee-to-trust decisions years after the expiration of administrative and legal remedies. In June 2014, the Ninth Circuit granted a rehearing en banc (full court hearing).
That hearing’s decision, Thursday’s unanimous reversal holds that challenges to the trust status of lands and the federal recognition of an Indian tribe can only be brought pursuant to the APA.
“In other words, a BIA trust decision cannot be attacked collaterally outside the framework of the APA,” said President Sharp.
“This truly is a case in which justice prevails. The case ruled that the tribe can conduct gaming under IGRA, subject only to the Secretary of the Interior’s approval of tribal/state compacts and not a barrage of collateral actions,” she said.