Mich. v. Bay Mills Indian Cmty.

Decision Date27 May 2014
Docket NumberNo. 12–515.,12–515.
Citation134 S.Ct. 2024,188 L.Ed.2d 1071,572 U.S. 782
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

John J. Bursch, Solicitor General, for Petitioner.

Neal Kumar Katyal, for Respondents.

Edwin S. Kneedler, for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the respondents.

Bill Schuette, Michigan Attorney General, John J. Bursch, Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Lansing, MI, Louis B. Reinwasser, Margaret A. Bettenhausen, Assistant Attorneys General, for Petitioner.

Kathryn L. Tierney, Chad P. DePetro, Bay Mills Indian Community, Brimley, MI, Bruce R. Greene, Law Offices of Bruce R. Greene & Associates, LLC, Boulder, CO, Neal Kumar Katyal, Counsel of Record, Jessica L. Ellsworth, David M. Ginn, Amanda K. Rice, Jonathan D. Shaub, Hogan Lovells US LLP, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Justice KAGAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in this case is whether tribal sovereign immunity bars Michigan's suit against the Bay Mills Indian Community for opening a casino outside Indian lands. We hold that immunity protects Bay Mills from this legal action. Congress has not abrogated tribal sovereign immunity from a State's suit to enjoin gaming off a reservation or other Indian lands. And we decline to revisit our prior decisions holding that, absent such an abrogation (or a waiver), Indian tribes have immunity even when a suit arises from off-reservation commercial activity. Michigan must therefore resort to other mechanisms, including legal actions against the responsible individuals, to resolve this dispute.


The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA or Act), 102 Stat. 2467, 25 U.S.C. § 2701 et seq., creates a framework for regulating gaming activity on Indian lands.1 See § 2702(3) (describing the statute's purpose as establishing "regulatory authority ... [and] standards for gaming on Indian lands"). The Act divides gaming into three classes. Class III gaming, the most closely regulated and the kind involved here, includes casino games, slot machines, and horse racing. See § 2703(8). A tribe may conduct such gaming on Indian lands only pursuant to, and in compliance with, a compact it has negotiated with the surrounding State. See § 2710(d)(1)(C). A compact typically prescribes rules for operating gaming, allocates law enforcement authority between the tribe and State, and provides remedies for breach of the agreement's terms. See §§ 2710(d)(3)(C)(ii), (v). Notable here, IGRA itself authorizes a State to bring suit against a tribe for certain conduct violating a compact: Specifically, § 2710(d)(7)(A)(ii) allows a State to sue in federal court to "enjoin a class III gaming activity located on Indian lands and conducted in violation of any Tribal–State compact ... that is in effect."

Pursuant to the Act, Michigan and Bay Mills, a federally recognized Indian Tribe, entered into a compact in 1993. See App. to Pet. for Cert. 73a–96a. The compact empowers Bay Mills to conduct class III gaming on "Indian lands"; conversely, it prohibits the Tribe from doing so outside that territory. Id., at 78a, 83a; see n. 1, supra . The compact also contains a dispute resolution mechanism, which sends to arbitration any contractual differences the parties cannot settle on their own. See App. to Pet. for Cert. 89a–90a. A provision within that arbitration section states that "[n]othing in this Compact shall be deemed a waiver" of either the Tribe's or the State's sovereign immunity. Id., at 90a. Since entering into the compact, Bay Mills has operated class III gaming, as authorized, on its reservation in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

In 2010, Bay Mills opened another class III gaming facility in Vanderbilt, a small village in Michigan's Lower Peninsula about 125 miles from the Tribe's reservation. Bay Mills had bought the Vanderbilt property with accrued interest from a federal appropriation, which Congress had made to compensate the Tribe for 19th-century takings of its ancestral lands. See Michigan Indian Land Claims Settlement Act, 111 Stat. 2652. Congress had directed that a portion of the appropriated funds go into a "Land Trust" whose earnings the Tribe was to use to improve or purchase property. According to the legislation, any land so acquired "shall be held as Indian lands are held." § 107(a)(3), id., at 2658. Citing that provision, Bay Mills contended that the Vanderbilt property was "Indian land" under IGRA and the compact; and the Tribe thus claimed authority to operate a casino there.

Michigan disagreed: The State sued Bay Mills in federal court to enjoin operation of the new casino, alleging that the facility violated IGRA and the compact because it was located outside Indian lands. The same day Michigan filed suit, the federal Department of the Interior issued an opinion concluding (as the State's complaint said) that the Tribe's use of Land Trust earnings to purchase the Vanderbilt property did not convert it into Indian territory. See App. 69–101. The District Court entered a preliminary injunction against Bay Mills, which promptly shut down the new casino and took an interlocutory appeal. While that appeal was pending, Michigan amended its complaint to join various tribal officials as defendants, as well as to add state law and federal common law claims. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit then vacated the injunction, holding (among other things) that tribal sovereign immunity barred Michigan's suit against Bay Mills unless Congress provided otherwise, and that § 2710(d)(7)(A)(ii) did not authorize the action. See 695 F.3d 406, 413–415 (2012). That provision of IGRA, the Sixth Circuit reasoned, permitted a suit against the Tribe to enjoin only gaming activity located on Indian lands, whereas the State's complaint alleged that the Vanderbilt casino was outside such territory. See id., at 412.2 Accordingly, the Court of Appeals concluded that Michigan could proceed, if at all, solely against the individual defendants, and it remanded to the District Court to consider those claims. See id., at 416–417.3 Although no injunction is currently in effect, Bay Mills has not reopened the Vanderbilt casino.

We granted certiorari to consider whether tribal sovereign immunity bars Michigan's suit against Bay Mills, 570 U.S. ––––, 133 S.Ct. 2850, 186 L.Ed.2d 907 (2013), and we now affirm the Court of Appeals' judgment.


Indian tribes are " 'domestic dependent nations' " that exercise "inherent sovereign authority." Oklahoma Tax Comm'n v. Citizen Band Potawatomi Tribe of Okla., 498 U.S. 505, 509, 111 S.Ct. 905, 112 L.Ed.2d 1112 (1991) (Potawatomi ) (quoting Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 5 Pet. 1, 17, 8 L.Ed. 25 (1831) ). As dependents, the tribes are subject to plenary control by Congress. See United States v. Lara, 541 U.S. 193, 200, 124 S.Ct. 1628, 158 L.Ed.2d 420 (2004) ("[T]he Constitution grants Congress" powers "we have consistently described as 'plenary and exclusive' " to "legislate in respect to Indian tribes"). And yet they remain "separate sovereigns pre-existing the Constitution." Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, 436 U.S. 49, 56, 98 S.Ct. 1670, 56 L.Ed.2d 106 (1978). Thus, unless and "until Congress acts, the tribes retain" their historic sovereign authority. United States v. Wheeler, 435 U.S. 313, 323, 98 S.Ct. 1079, 55 L.Ed.2d 303 (1978).

Among the core aspects of sovereignty that tribes possess—subject, again, to congressional action—is the "common-law immunity from suit traditionally enjoyed by sovereign powers." Santa Clara Pueblo, 436 U.S., at 58, 98 S.Ct. 1670. That immunity, we have explained, is "a necessary corollary to Indian sovereignty and self-governance." Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation v. Wold Engineering, P.C., 476 U.S. 877, 890, 106 S.Ct. 2305, 90 L.Ed.2d 881 (1986) ; cf. The Federalist No. 81, p. 511 (B. Wright ed. 1961) (A. Hamilton) (It is "inherent in the nature of sovereignty not to be amenable" to suit without consent). And the qualified nature of Indian sovereignty modifies that principle only by placing a tribe's immunity, like its other governmental powers and attributes, in Congress's hands. See United States v. United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co., 309 U.S. 506, 512, 60 S.Ct. 653, 84 L.Ed. 894 (1940) ( USF & G ) ("It is as though the immunity which was theirs as sovereigns passed to the United States for their benefit"). Thus, we have time and again treated the "doctrine of tribal immunity [as] settled law" and dismissed any suit against a tribe absent congressional authorization (or a waiver). Kiowa Tribe of Okla. v. Manufacturing Technologies, Inc., 523 U.S. 751, 756, 118 S.Ct. 1700, 140 L.Ed.2d 981 (1998).

In doing so, we have held that tribal immunity applies no less to suits brought by States (including in their own courts) than to those by individuals. First in Puyallup Tribe, Inc. v. Department of Game of Wash., 433 U.S. 165, 167–168, 172–173, 97 S.Ct. 2616, 53 L.Ed.2d 667 (1977), and then again in Potawatomi, 498 U.S., at 509–510, 111 S.Ct. 905, we barred a State seeking to enforce its laws from filing suit against a tribe, rejecting arguments grounded in the State's own sovereignty. In each case, we said a State must resort to other remedies, even if they would be less "efficient." Id., at 514, 111 S.Ct. 905; see Kiowa, 523 U.S., at 755, 118 S.Ct. 1700 ("There is a difference between the right to demand compliance with state laws and the means available to enforce them"). That is because, as we have often stated (and contrary to the dissent's novel pronouncement, see post, at 2046 (opinion of THOMAS, J.) (hereinafter the dissent)), tribal immunity "is a matter of federal law and is not subject to diminution by the States." 523 U.S., at 756, 118 S.Ct. 1700 (citing Three Affiliated Tribes, 476 U.S., at 891, 106 S.Ct. 2305; Washington v. Confederated Tribes of Colville Reservation, 447 U.S. 134, 154, 100 S.Ct. 2069, 65 L.Ed.2d 10 (1980) ). Or...

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