Carcieri ’65 challenges Narragansett sovereignty

Thursday, March 13, 2008

This fall, lawyers for Gov. Donald Carcieri ’65 and the town of Charlestown, R.I. will argue a case involving American Indian land claims at the U.S. Supreme Court. Carcieri and the town are challenging the right of the U.S. Department of Interior to transfer sovereignty of Ocean State land to the local Narragansett Indian Tribe after the tribe purchased it in 1991.

The case comes on the heels of a decision by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston last year to allow the DOI to appropriate state land into trust for the Narragansett Tribe, according to a Feb. 25 press release from the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office. Dissatisfied with the Court’s decision, Carcieri and the town of Charlestown – in which the 31 acres in question are located ­- will take their case against the DOI to the next level in federal court.

In their Supreme Court brief, representatives of the 16 supporting states wrote that the First Circuit’s decision was not justified. They wrote that the Court misinterpreted the Rhode Island Indian Claims Settlement Act and the Indian Reogranization Act of 1934, which “grants the Secretary of the Interior unfettered discretion to take land within any State into trust ‘for Indians.’ ”

Carcieri and Charlestown officials argue that the Narragansetts were not recognized as a tribe when the IRA was passed in 1934, and therefore is not entitled to soveriengty over the land, according to the Feb. 25 Boston Globe article. Thomas said that the tribe never gave up its right to acquire sovereign land or to self govern when they became federally recognized in 1983.

“It always comes down to sovereignty,” said Lincoln Chafee ’75, former senator and visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, regarding Rhode Island’s objection to the ruling.

Chafee said taking the land out of state jurisdiction creates complications for Rhode Island. “For instance, if there is a crime committed on the tribal land, does the tribal police investigate it? Does the state police investigate it?” Chafee said. “There are some thorny issues associated with sovereignty. And that’s just a piece of it.”

Chafee added that the statewide hot topic of gambling is also “absolutely at the core” of the case. The tribe purchased the land in 1991 to build a housing complex for the elderly, but Narragansett Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas has said the tribe may build a casino on the land, in violation of Rhode Island law, according to a Feb. 25 Boston Globe article.

“The unfortunate thing … is that Rhode Island has expanded its gaming with only minimal involvement of the Narragansett Indians,” Chafee said. “I should think, as Rhode Island is a state with two (gaming) venues – one in Lincoln and one in Newport – that there would be some effort to reach out (to) the (Narragansett) Tribe, and that would lessen the need for these legal arguments.”

Beyond its implications for the state, the case, called Carcieri v. Kempthorne, could also set precedent on a national level, wrote Mike Healey, spokesman for Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch ’87, in an e-mail to The Herald.

“If Rhode Island wins, the precedent is that the United States may be very limited as to which tribes they can take land into trust for,” Healey wrote. “The direct result of such a precedent is that states will lose control over less land because the United States will not be able to take as much from the states’ jurisdiction.”

Nationwide, the DOI has taken into trust an area equal to twice the size of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined, and continues to receive applications from tribes annually, according to a Supreme Court brief filed on behalf of Carcieri and Charlestown.

“For too long, the legitimate concerns of states in the federal land-to-trust process have been ignored. It is simply not acceptable for any state to be stripped of its sovereignty over land within its borders by mid-level bureaucrats in Washington,” Carcieri said in a Feb. 25 press release.

Healey said Lynch, who brought the issue to the Supreme Court last October, agrees with Carcieri. Rhode Island has the support of 16 states, who signed onto a Supreme Court brief last year, in which they urged the Court to review Carcieri v. Kempthorne, Healey said.

“With the stroke of a pen, the federal government can unilaterally strip a state of its sovereign jurisdiction by taking land into trust – even where there are currently no federally recognized Indian tribes,” Lynch said, in his Feb. 25 press release.

Both sides agree that the Supreme Court’s decision will have implications for similar cases in the future. With 15 settlement acts “on the horizon” in other states, the issue at hand will have “ramifications far beyond Rhode Island,” the states wrote in their brief to the Supreme Court.

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