Pictured Wednesday, Feb. 28, are (from left) tribal spokesperson James Nye, tribal chair Scott Sprague and council vice chair Ed Pigeon. (Photo by Ryan Lewis)

Gun Lake Tribe wins legal battle in Supreme Court, keeps land and casino

By: 
Ryan Lewis, Editor

The legal battle over the Gun Lake Tribe’s land has ended with the U.S. Supreme Court siding 6-3 with the tribe.

Scott Sprague, Chairman of the Gun Lake Tribe, said, “This decision ends a decades-long struggle, and ensures the Tribe can carry on our Elders’ vision for growth and self-sufficiency. We are thankful the Supreme Court upheld the many lower court decisions in favor of the Tribe. This is a significant development for not only the Tribe, but also all of Indian Country.”

The case brought last year by David Patchak of Shelbyville challenged what he saw as an unconstitutional federal law that ended his 2008 lawsuit. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in November and issued a set of opinions Tuesday, Feb. 27.

At a press conference Wednesday, Feb. 28, Sprague said the ruling removed “the troublesome asterisk” the legal fight had placed on all of the tribe’s planning efforts.

Now, he said, “one of our economic engines, the Gun Lake Casino, can continue to flourish and grow responsibly.”

The tribe opened the first phase of its casino on just off the Shelbyville exit of US-131 in 2011 after fighting lawsuits designed to delay its construction.

The tribe petitioned the federal government in 2005 to place 147 acres of land in that area into trust. Patchak sued, challenging that decision. After a series of appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that Patchak, a farmer who lives near the casino, had standing to bring his case.

Had the government’s action to place the land in trust been overturned, the tribe would have lost sovereign control over it. Without that, the tribe’s compact with the state would be broken, voiding its Class III gaming license—which permits the types of gaming associated with modern casinos, such as table card games, roulette and craps along with its electronic slot games.

The Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act, passed in September 2014, ended that case, however. A press release from the tribe’s legal team at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP said, “the Gun Lake Act stripped the court of jurisdiction to hear the case; the D.C. Circuit upheld that decision.

“In (Tuesday’s) decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal by a 6-3 vote. A four-Justice plurality held that the Gun Lake Act did not violate Article III of the Constitution, and two Justices concurred in the judgment on the ground that the Act validly reinstated sovereign immunity from suit.”

Tribal vice chair Ed Pigeon said Wednesday the lawsuits had been ongoing his entire adult life.

“I’m very pleased to have been a part of this from beginning to end,” Pigeon said. “From back when MichGO, 23 is Enough, and other large organization were all fighting us—all along the way, we knew we would prevail and justice would be done.

“Now we can really go forward and advance our tribe and the community around us without any threat of obstacles in our way.”

See next week's issue of The Allegan County News for more on the high court's decision and the tribe's reaction to it.

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