Supreme Court to Mull Congressional Power in Lawsuits

Michigan case could reshape Congress’ power to affect court outcomes

The Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday about a law that required federal courts to dismiss lawsuits related to a Michigan land tract. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday in a case that questions whether Congress crossed a line by telling federal courts what to do with challenges to a Michigan land tract and its use as a Native American casino.

It will be the second time in two years the justices will consider a case that could reshape Congress’ power to use legislation to affect the outcome of specific ongoing court cases.

Last year, the court sided with Congress and upheld a law that allows victims of terrorist attacks sponsored by Iran to pursue damages. In this separation of powers case, House lawmakers filed a brief to defend a 2014 law and assert what they call the “broad sweep” of Congress’ legislative authority.

The law at issue now seeks to end a lengthy court battle about the Interior Department’s decision to take that tract into trust for the Gun Lake Tribe of Pottawatomi Indians. The law reaffirmed the department’s trust status of the land and required the federal courts to dismiss lawsuits about what is called “the Bradley property.”

The main tension in the case: While Congress generally has the authority to tell lower federal courts what kinds of cases they can hear, it can’t tell judges how to decide a particular case, law professor Steven Schwinn of the John Marshall Law School wrote in an American Bar Association preview of the case.

The House told the justices in a brief that Congress has enacted “countless provisions directing courts to dismiss lawsuits under a wide variety of circumstances.”

“While the Gun Lake Act withdraws jurisdiction over a relatively narrow class of cases — only those cases relating to the Bradley property — the Court has consistently held that Congress may enact legislation that is as particularized as it sees fit,” the House states in the brief.

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

Patchak’s attorneys told the justices in a brief that the Constitution prevents Congress from giving itself judicial power, and it is “difficult to imagine a more direct invasion of the judicial power than occurred here.”

If Congress can direct courts to dismiss cases, “then there is no meaningful limitation on the legislature’s authority and ability to effectively review and displace judicial decisions it finds inconvenient or with which it disagrees,” Patchak states in his brief.

Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan introduced the law in response to a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that said Patchak “may proceed” with a lawsuit challenging Interior’s decision about use of the land.

It’s unclear whether the Supreme Court will be receptive to Patchak’s arguments. At least four justices had to agree to hear the case. But in April 2016, only two justices dissented from a ruling that upheld a 2012 law that was central to the Iranian terror case.

In that case, Bank Markazi, the Iranian central bank, argued that the law enacted by Congress was unconstitutional because it determined a particular result in a single pending case — identified by one federal district court docket number where the cases were consolidated. The court’s majority said Congress acted comfortably within its authority because the 2012 law in question covered a category of cases.

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