Fractured Court Acknowledges Congress’ Power To Abridge Court Jurisdiction Mid-Case

While a case was pending in federal district court regarding a taking of land into trust on behalf of an Indian Tribe, Congress passed the Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act, which provided that suits relating to the land “shall not be filed or maintained in a Federal court and shall be promptly dismissed.” The plaintiff argued that the law infringed the court’s authority under Article III of the Constitution. The D.C. Circuit dismissed plaintiff’s case. While a majority of the Court could not agree on the rationale, it ultimately affirmed the D.C. Circuit’s ruling. Justice Thomas, joined by Justices Breyer, Alito, and Kagan, held that Congress acted well within its authority to change the jurisdiction of the federal courts, even while a case was pending. Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, held that the Act merely reaffirmed Congress’ authority to affirm sovereign immunity from suit, which it can do at any time. Justice Sotomayor, in a separate concurrence, noted her agreement with the dissent’s view that Congress cannot dictate an outcome in a particular case, but that her agreement with Justice Ginsburg overrode that concern. Justice Breyer, in a concurrence, set forth his argument why the Act did not qualify as a dictate from Congress solely as to the case at issue. Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Kennedy and Gorsuch, dissented, arguing that the Act was, in fact, a mandate from Congress as to the outcome of a single case, and thus impermissibly infringed upon the authority granted to the judiciary under Article III. See opinion in Patchak v. Zinke.