Supreme Court Backs Congressional Power to Affect Lawsuits

Chief Justice Roberts, Gorsuch dissent in the decision

The Supreme Court ruled that Congress did not overstep into the power of federal courts. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A divided Supreme Court on Tuesday backed the power of Congress to pass legislation that would affect ongoing litigation, ruling that a law about Michigan land and its use as a Native American casino did not violate the Constitution.

In a 6-3 opinion, the court found that Congress did not overstep into the power of federal courts with a law to end a lengthy court battle over the Interior Department’s decision to take that tract into trust for the Gun Lake Tribe of Pottawatomi Indians.

The law strips federal courts of jurisdiction over legal challenges to that property. It also reaffirmed the department’s trust status and required the federal courts to dismiss lawsuits about what is called “the Bradley property.”

“Before the Gun Lake Act, federal courts had jurisdiction to hear these actions,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court. “Now they do not. This kind of legal change is well within Congress’ authority and does not violate Article III.”

Michigan resident David Patchak, who wanted to pursue a lawsuit challenging Interior’s decision over his concerns it would ruin the community, argued that the law is “unusual” in that it orders a narrow range of lawsuits to be dismissed without amending any underlying laws.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., in a dissent joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, wrote that Patchak expected to have his case decided by judges whose independence from political pressure was ensured by separation of powers.

“It was instead decided by Congress, in favor of the litigant it preferred, under a law adopted just for the occasion,” Roberts wrote.

And Roberts wrote that Tuesday’s decision goes against a previous opinion in which the Supreme Court agreed that Congress could not pass a law that directed the outcome of a single case.

“Congress has previously approached the boundary between legislative and judicial power, but it has never gone so far as to target a single party for adverse treatment and direct the precise disposition of his pending case,” Roberts wrote. The law “remarkably — does just that.”

It is the second time in two years the justices sided with Congress on the power to affect lawsuits. The Supreme Court in 2016 upheld a 2012 law  that allows victims of terrorist attacks sponsored by Iran to pursue damages.

The case is David Patchak v. Ryan Zinke, et al., Docket No. 16-498.

Correction 9:57 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misstated the vote count of the justices in the opinion.

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