Supreme Court weighs Congress's power to dismiss lawsuits

Supreme Court weighs Congress's power to dismiss lawsuits
© Getty Images

The Supreme Court grappled Tuesday with whether Congress has the power to dismiss pending litigation through legislation. 

The separation of powers case centers on the Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act, which Congress passed in 2014.  

The bill, offered by Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowCongress prepares to punt biggest political battles until after midterms Trump attacks Dems on farm bill Trump is wrong, Dems are fighting to save Medicare and Social Security MORE (D-Mich.), ordered the federal courts to “promptly dismiss” any pending or future case “relating to” a tract of land in Michigan. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs transferred the land to a trust for the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of the Pottawatomi Indians, also known as the Gun Lake Tribe, under the Indian Reorganization Act. 

The tribe had asked for the land to build a casino.

ADVERTISEMENT

David Patchak, who lives near the property, brought a case challenging the land transfer that was dismissed by the legislation. He argued Congress violated the Constitution’s separation of powers principles because the new law directed the outcome of his case without amending an underlying substantive or procedural law only. 

Patchak's attorney, Scott Gant, said a ruling in favor of Congress allows lawmakers to circumvent the judiciary.

“If you affirm and uphold the Gun Lake Act, you will have judges looking over their shoulders wondering if they’re going to be next in a case like this. ... We can dress it up using the language of jurisdiction, but it's still taking the case away from the courts and directing the outcome," he said.

Several of the justices seemed worried that Congress could impede on a person’s constitutional rights by way of legislation. 

Chief Justice John Roberts said during the civil rights era there were proposals in Congress that said federal courts have no jurisdiction over any case in which busing is sought as a remedy for segregated schools.   

Justice Elena Kagan, meanwhile, asked if it would be constitutional for Congress to pass a law to shield a corporation from being sued for employment discrimination.

The attorney for the Gun Lake Tribe, Pratik Shah, said such a law may be unconstitutional but would not violate the separation of powers.

“If Congress had signaled out just Mr. Patchak’s suit in the text of the statute, maybe they could have brought that sort of claim,” he admitted. 

But Justice Anthony Kennedy said Kagan’s hypothetical is problematic. 

“This, it seems to me, severely calls into question the integrity of the courts. And that's a separation of powers problem,” he said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed to suggest there’s a difference between Congress coming between two private parties and directing a result in favor of one party over another and Congress weighing in on lawsuits involving the government. 

This is Patchak’s second time before the court. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled he had the right to challenge the government’s ability to transfer the land to the tribe under the Indian Reorganization Act. By that time, the casino had already been built. Before Patchak’s case made it back to the district court, Congress passed the Gun Lake Act. 

“If the suit had proceeded to conclusion and Patchak prevailed, would he be entitled to costs?” Kennedy asked. 

Gant said Patchak might. 

“Well I’m wondering if it helps your position to say Congress is stripping him of certain rights that he had because of the litigation,” Kennedy said.  

In a 33-page friend of the court brief in support of Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeTrump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands Big-game hunters infuriated by Trump elephant trophy debacle Interior moves ahead with opening wildlife refuge next to contaminated nuclear site MORE, the House argued that the lower court had correctly held the legislation was a permissible exercise of Congress’s authority to  “withdraw subject matter jurisdiction” over a class of cases and “to direct district courts to apply” the “newly enacted legislation in pending civil cases.”

Kagan, however, noted during the hourlong arguments that by stripping the court of its jurisdiction to hear the case, Congress is in fact changing jurisdictional law.

“It's saying, you know, yesterday you had jurisdiction over a certain category of cases. Today you don't.  Now, why is that unconstitutional or when is that unconstitutional?” she asked. 

Gant said it’s unconstitutional when under the guise of changing jurisdiction, Congress decides the case. 

But the court’s newest member, Justice Neil Gorsuch, said the suit’s dismissal in a “natural consequence” of stripping the courts of its jurisdiction to hear a case. 

“So where is the real beef here?” he asked. 

A light-hearted moment came when Justice Stephen Breyer asked why Patchak didn’t bring his lawsuit in state court.

“I’d have to think about whether we could do that,” Gant said.

Roberts then wanted to know if the tribe could be sued in state court or the government. 

Breyer twice jumped in to answer his questions. 

“You can, yeah!” he exclaimed.

Roberts then clarified to whom the question was intended.

“I’m asking you,” Roberts said, looking at Gant, and laughter erupted in the courtroom. 

“I don’t want to get in the way of a good discussion,” Gant quipped.