IT was a big victory for states, and a big setback for Indian tribes and the spreading $6 billion industry of gambling on Indian reservations.
The Supreme Court yesterday struck down a primary part of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a 1988 federal law. In doing so, high court justices in essence told the federal government to keep its nose out of the sometimes-contentious negotiations between tribes and states over the proper scope of casinos and other gambling parlors on tribal land.
The ruling was a stunning setback for Washington's native American policies. Congress has passed laws dealing with Indians for over a century, virtually unhindered by the courts; that practice now appears at an end.
More importantly, the court's decision may have restored much importance to the 11th Amendment to the Constitution, which protects states from being sued in federal courts against their will. This amendment is the foundation upon which politicians and judges who favor "states' rights" often build their arguments.
"It's straightforward, continuing the court's interest in federalism, and defining areas in which states can act without fearing federal lawsuits," says Mark Tushnet, a dean at the Georgetown University School of Law.
Specifically, the 5 to 4 high court decision in Seminole Tribe v. Florida struck down a Gaming Act provision that says an Indian tribe may sue a state in federal court if that state does not define clearly what on-reservation gambling it will allow.
The Seminoles had sued the state of Florida after Gov. Lawton Chiles did not agree to the tribe's plan for gambling on one if its five Florida reservations.
The majority of justices decided that this federal court oversight was improper. Writing for the court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that the 11th Amendment restricts federal judicial power and that other constitutional powers allocated Congress "cannot be used to circumvent the constitutional limitations placed upon federal jurisdiction."
For 20 years the Supreme Court has been divided between two views of the 11th Amendment - with one side supporting Congress' power to enforce federal regulation, and the other side favoring "states rights."
WEDNESDAY'S ruling clears up much of the dispute, coming down strongly on the side of states - a direction the court, under Rehnquist, has been moving inexorably for some time. Still, the court has been conflicted on the issue. Last year it restricted states rights in an Arkansas case involving term limits and the right of states to impose them on representatives to Congress. But in the more significant Lopez case, dealing with a federal law outlawing guns within 1,000 feet of a school, the court in a 5 to 4 decision ruled for the first time in nearly 70 years to limit Congress's power to regulate states.
The Seminole decision also emphasized the split on the Court between judicial conservatives and moderates that has been defining it's direction in recent years.
In an unusual step, Justice David Souter read from his dissenting opinion - for seven minutes. "The court today holds for the first time since the founding of the republic that Congress has no authority to subject a state to the jurisdiction of a federal court at the behest of an individual asserting a federal right," he wrote.
Yesterday the court also heard a National Football League case that could disrupt already fragile relations between players and owners, conceivably even forcing a return to the old days of one-on-one contract negotiations. The case's bottom line, watched closely by management and labor in businesses ranging from entertainment to trucking , deals with the future of "good faith bargaining." The case gets into the technicalities of NFL union-owner negotiations, and has each side predictably vying for more leverage and control in future agreements.