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A Regulatory Quick Fix for Carcieri v. Salazar: How the Department of Interior Can Invoke an Alternative Source of Existing Statutory Authority to Overcome an Adverse Judgment Under the Chevron Doctrine





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At the Solicitor’s Indian Law Practitioner’s Conference on March 3, 2011, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar reiterated his desire for a “legislative fix” for the Supreme Court opinion in Carcieri v. Salazar. In Carcieri, the Court interpreted the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (IRA) to effectuate a perverse distinction between Indian tribes under federal jurisdiction in June 1934 and Indian tribes whose relationship with the federal government was not established until after June 1934. Applying step one of the doctrine articulated in Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., which inquires “whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue,” the majority opinion of Justice Thomas declared that “the term ‘now under Federal jurisdiction’ in [the IRA] unambiguously refers to those tribes that were under the federal jurisdiction of the United States when the IRA was enacted in 1934.” As a result, § 5 of the IRA, codified at 25 U.S.C. § 465, only authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to “provid[e] land for Indians” whose tribe fits within the IRA’s definition of an “Indian,” codified at 25 U.S.C. § 479: “The term ‘Indian’ as used in this Act shall include all persons of Indian descent who are members of any recognized Indian tribe now under Federal jurisdiction.” A cloud now hangs over any land-into-trust transactions that the Secretary has made for Indian tribes which were not federally recognized until after 1934, and which are now unable to prove that their “post-1934 recognition [was granted] on grounds that implied a 1934 relationship between the tribe and Federal Government that could be described as jurisdictional.”

The cries for a legislative fix began to pour out as soon as the Carcieri decision was delivered. A slew of proposed reform bills have made their way into the public discussion of federal land-into-trust policies. And yet, because the Department of the Interior’s land-into-trust acquisitions for Indian tribes are “not without passionate opposition,” Congress is wading slowly into this potentially explosive controversy. While Congress hesitates to fix Carcieri, the Secretary continues to contemplate whether to promulgate a new regulation to mitigate the decision’s harshness. Unfortunately, “a proposed regulation being considered by the Obama administration . . . is generally disfavored by tribal leadership, owing largely to the perception that a regulatory fix will delay, or even halt, progress towards a legislative remedy, which is regarded as a more permanent measure.”

Unlike older proposals, which presume the need for new legislation or regulations to fix Carcieri, this Recent Development argues that existing statutes and regulations already authorize the Secretary to overcome the effects of Carcieri. Even though the IRA no longer authorizes the Secretary to take land into trust for Indian tribes not under federal jurisdiction in June 1934, the Secretary’s fee-into-trust regulations under 25 C.F.R. Part 151 rest on several other pillars of statutory authority. 25 U.S.C. §§ 2 and 9 are the strongest alternative sources of statutory authority under which the Secretary may claim delegated authority for fee-into-trust acquisitions on behalf of Indian tribes not under federal jurisdiction in June 1934. The Supreme Court has already recognized that 25 U.S.C. §§ 2 and 9 vest the Secretary with the power to

formulat[e] policy and [to make] rules to fill any gap left, implicitly or explicitly, by Congress. In the area of Indian affairs, the Executive has long been empowered to promulgate rules and policies, and the power has been given explicitly to the Secretary and his delegates at the [Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)].

Under the Chevron doctrine, 25 U.S.C. §§ 2 and 9 constitute an explicit delegation of authority to the Secretary to promulgate “legislative regulations [which] are given controlling weight unless they are arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly contrary to the statute.” Such legislative regulations are thus entitled to the maximum amount of Chevron deference.

25 U.S.C. §§ 2 and 9 also form the statutory basis for 25 C.F.R. Part 83, which codifies the federal administrative process for the acknowledgment of Indian tribes previously lacking federal recognition. Because 25 C.F.R. § 83.12(a) entitles acknowledged tribes “the privileges and immunities available to other federally recognized historic tribes,” and renders them “eligible for the services and benefits from the Federal government that are available to other federally recognized tribes,” federal acknowledgment under 25 C.F.R. Part 83 ought to include the benefits available to tribes under 25 C.F.R. Part 151. Accordingly, this Recent Development urges that the ruling in Carcieri does not prohibit the Secretary from asserting that he has always held statutory authority under 25 U.S.C. §§ 2 and 9 to transfer land into trust for Indian tribes acknowledged under 25 C.F.R. Part 83. Although not every tribe federally recognized after 1934 was given status under 25 C.F.R. Part 83, the regulatory quick fix proposed in this paper would minimize the devastating consequences of Carcieri while a legislative fix stalls in Congress.

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