Court to hear Mashpee tribe’s appeal of land-in-trust ruling

Article Link

By Jessica Hill / jhill@capecodonline.comPosted Jan 29, 2020 at 6:12 PMUpdated Jan 30, 2020 at 6:25 AM   

Wampanoag have battled challenges to planned casino for years.

BOSTON — The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals next week will take up the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s appeal of a federal court decision that the Interior Department was not authorized to take the tribe’s land into trust.

The hearing is scheduled for Feb. 5 at 1 Courthouse Way in Boston, Tribal Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell said in a statement.

The case has been part of a yearslong battle between the tribe and the neighbors of its proposed $1 billion casino in Taunton.

In 2015, the Interior Department under the Obama administration took 321 acres of reservation land in Mashpee and Taunton into trust. The federal government has long acted as trustee for tribes, holding land deeds in trust for the purpose of self-government. The land-in-trust designation also was necessary for the tribe to pursue its plans to build the casino.

A group of Taunton residents, led by David and Michelle Littlefield, went to court in an attempt to block the casino. U.S. District Judge William Young ruled in July 2016 that the tribe was not under federal jurisdiction at the time the Indian Reorganization Act was passed in 1934, disqualifying it for land-in-trust status. He sent the matter back to the Interior Department for review.

In September 2018, the department under the Trump administration ultimately sided with Young’s decision and reversed its previous finding.

“Through this appeal, the Tribe hopes to uphold the original Record of Decision accepting the Tribe’s land into trust,” Cromwell said in the statement. “This appeal concerns the question of whether the Department of Interior was authorized to take the Tribe’s land into trust.”

Each side will speak for 15 minutes, according to Cromwell. The court likely will issue a decision within the next several months, he said.

Cromwell encouraged tribal members to attend the hearing.

The tribe also filed suit against the Interior Department and then Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to challenge the 2018 reversal. The Littlefields intervened in that case but were unsuccessful in having it transferred to the federal court in Boston.

David Tennant, an attorney for the Taunton plaintiffs, had argued that both cases dealt with the same “narrow legal question” of whether the tribe was under federal jurisdiction at the time of the Indian Reorganization Act’s passage, a requirement codified in a 2009 Supreme Court decision known as Carcieri v. Salazar.

Judge Rosemary M. Collyer, however, ruled in June that although the Littlefields had “legitimate reasons” for the requested transfer, “this lawsuit might have national policy implications that exceed the status of a single parcel of land.”

Plans for the First Light Resort & Casino called for 300 hotel rooms, 3,000 slot machines, 150 table games and 40 poker tables. With all the legal wrangling involving the tribe, the state’s Gaming Commission has discussed reopening the bidding for a casino license for the region, but has been in no rush to take that step.

As the tribe works to secure its land in trust through the courts, U.S. Rep. William Keating, who represents Taunton and Mashpee, has pushed legislation in Congress that would reaffirm the initial 2015 decision by the Interior Department.

The House of Representatives voted in May to approve that bill, but it has not been acted on since being referred to the Senate that same month.