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Law School Case Brief

Carcieri v. Salazar - 555 U.S. 379, 129 S. Ct. 1058 (2009)


For purposes of 25 U.S.C.S. § 479, the phrase "now under Federal jurisdiction" refers to an Indian tribe that was under federal jurisdiction at the time of the statute's enactment. As a result, § 479 limits the authority of the Secretary of the Interior to taking land into trust for the purpose of providing land to members of a tribe that was under federal jurisdiction when the Indian Reorganization Act was enacted in June of 193


The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), enacted in 1934, authorized the Secretary of the Interior, respondent in the present case, to acquire land and hold it in trust "for the purpose of providing land for Indians.” The aforementioned statute defined “Indian” to “include all persons of Indian descent who are members of any recognized Indian tribe now under Federal jurisdiction," § 479.  The Narragansett Tribe was placed under the Colony of Rhode Island's formal guardianship in 1709. It agreed to relinquish its tribal authority and sell all but two acres of its remaining reservation land in 1880, but then began trying to regain its land and tribal status. n a 1978 agreement settling a dispute between the Tribe and Rhode Island, the Tribe received title to 1,800 acres of land in petitioner Charlestown in exchange for relinquishing claims to state land based on aboriginal title. The Tribe gained formal recognition from the Federal Government in 1983, and the Secretary of the Interior accepted a deed of trust to the 1,800 acres in 1988.

Subsequently, a dispute arose over whether the Tribe's plans to build housing on an additional 31 acres of land it had purchased complied with local regulations. While litigation was pending, the Secretary accepted the 31-acre parcel into trust. The Interior Board of Indian Appeals upheld that decision, and petitioners sought review. The District Court granted summary judgment to the Secretary and other officials, determining that § 479's plain language defined “Indian” to include members of all tribes in existence in 1934, but did not require a tribe to have been federally recognized on that date; and concluding that, since the Tribe was currently federally recognized and was in existence in 1934, it was a tribe under § 479. In affirming, the First Circuit found § 479 ambiguous as to the meaning of "now under Federal jurisdiction," applied the principles of Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. NRDC, 467 U.S. 837, 843, 104 S. Ct. 2778, 81 L. Ed. 2d 694, and deferred to the Secretary's construction of the provision to allow the land to be taken into trust.


Was the Secretary of Interior justified in taking the 31-acre parcel into trust, because the Narragansett Tribe was a “tribe” within the meaning of the term as defined in § 479 of The Indian Reorganization Act?




The United States Supreme Court held that  the term "now under Federal jurisdiction" unambiguously referred to those tribes that were under federal jurisdiction when the IRA was enacted and, because the tribe was not under federal jurisdiction at that time, the Secretary lacked the authority to take the land into trust. At the time of enactment of the IRA, the ordinary meaning of the word "now" was "at this moment" or "at the time of speaking," which clearly referred in § 479 solely to matters existing contemporaneous with the enactment of the IRA, and such definition aligned with the natural reading of the word within the context of the IRA.

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