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October 31, 2014

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Supreme Court says Michigan can’t block Indian casino

WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Michigan can't block the opening of an American Indian casino because the state's legal challenge is barred by tribal sovereign immunity.

In a 5-4 decision, the high court said the state could not shutter the Bay Mills Indian Community's casino about 90 miles south of its Upper Peninsula reservation.

Michigan argued that the Bay Mills tribe opened the casino in 2010 without permission from the U.S. government and in violation of a state compact. The tribe had purchased land for the casino with earnings from a settlement with the federal government over allegations that it had not been adequately compensated for land ceded in 1800s treaties.

Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said that tribal immunity extends to off-reservation commercial activities. Kagan said it doesn't matter that the casino was authorized, licensed and operated from the tribe's reservation.

Kagan was joined in her opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

The casino has been closed since 2011, when a federal judge sided with Michigan and issued an injunction barring it from operating. The 6th Circuit U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw the injunction out after ruling that the court lacked jurisdiction over some claims and that the tribe also has sovereign immunity.

In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said he disagreed with the court's 1998 case extending tribal sovereign immunity to bar lawsuits arising from an Indian tribe's commercial activities outside its territory. In the 16 years since that decision, "tribal commerce has proliferated and the inequities engendered by unwarranted tribal immunity have multiplied," Thomas wrote.

Thomas was joined in dissent by Justices Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel Alito.

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