The Supreme Court’s 2010 Term — for tribal interests — was a flurry of activity, but with little to show for it. In Shakespeare’s words, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing (or almost nothing). Our two previews are here and here. Our previous mid-Term updates are here and here.
The underlying theme of the Term seems to be the aggressive campaign by the Department of Justice to undermine the tribal-federal trust relationship. Of note, the once-prominent and now-discredited Lone Wolf period where the Supreme Court granted free reign to Congress and the Executive branch appears to be recurring, with the Executive branch now enjoying virtually unlimited authority to handle tribal trust property with little or no consultation. Also, for the sixth consecutive Term, and for every Term except 1996, the Court granted zero tribal petitions.
The Court ruled 7-1 against the Nation (with Justice Kagan recused). Only Justice Ginsburg dissented. The Court then GVR’d a similar case, United States v. Eastern Shawnee. Within a few weeks of the outcome, the government began moving for dismissal of claims around the country, the first apparently being the Goodeagle case.
This is the big surprise of the Term (and it appears the closest thing to a “win” for tribal interests), with the Supreme Court granting cert on the question whether tribes are immune from foreclosures by counties for failure to pay property taxes, and then the Oneida Indian Nation enacting an ordinance purporting to waive its immunity from such suits. Over the petitioners’ objections, the Court remanded the case back to the Second Circuit for reconsideration in light of Oneida’s waiver.
Easily the biggest case for tribal interests the Court granted this Term, and the biggest disappointment. The Court ruled 7-1 (with Justice Kagain recused, and Justice Sotomayor dissenting) that common law fiduciary trust law doesn’t apply to Congressionally-created trusts. The outcome here means that It remains to be seen whether other trusts would survive the ruling. The case attracted attention from a national Court observer (Andrew Cohen), who harshly criticized the decision (here).
The oral argument transcript is here.