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Case Basics
Docket No. 
Donald L. Carcieri, Governor of Rhode Island
Ken L. Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, et al.
(argued the cause for the petitioners)
(Assistant to the Solicitor General, argued the cause for the respondent)
Facts of the Case 

In 1991, the Narragansett Indian Tribe purchased a 31-acre parcel of land in Charlestown, RI to build a housing complex for the elderly. The U.S. Department of the Interior, acting at the tribe's request, moved to take the land into federal trust, thereby placing it largely under federal and tribal control, in 1998. However, Rhode Island officials opposed the move, claiming that the Department of the Interior lacked the proper authority because the Narragansett tribe was not recognized until nearly 50 years after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act took effect. The U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island upheld the action, stating that Rhode Island was taking an unnecessarily narrow view of the law.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the district court's decision and approved of its reasoning. In seeking Supreme Court review to determine whether the time of tribal recognition should be dispositive on this issue, Rhode Island noted that "the future allocation of civil and criminal jurisdiction between states and tribes over a potentially unlimited amount of land hangs in the balance."


Does the federal government have the ability to take land into trust for American Indian tribes recognized after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934?

Decision: votes for Carcieri, vote(s) against
Legal provision: The Indian Reorganization Act

No. The Supreme Court reversed the First Circuit holding that the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 did not apply to tribes not recognized at the time of the statute's creation. Therefore, the Indian Reorganization Act did not authorize the Secretary of the Interior to act on behalf of the Narrangansett Tribe as trustee. With Justice Clarence Thomas writing for the majority and joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Justice Antonin G. Scalia, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, and Justice Samuel A. Alito, the Court reasoned that the statute unambiguously referred only to those tribes that were under federal jurisdiction in 1934, and therefore did not apply to the Narrangansett Tribe.

Justice Breyer wrote a separate concurring opinion qualifying his assent to the majority opinion. In part, he argued that the statute was not "unambiguous", but through contextual analysis, the statute referred only to those tribes under federal jurisdiction in 1934. Justice David H. Souter, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also wrote separately, concurring in part and dissenting in part. He departed from the majority opinion by arguing that the case should have been remanded for the Narrangansett Tribe to pursue an alternative legal theory. Justice John Paul Stevens dissented arguing that the Narrangansett Tribe was an Indian Tribe under the meaning of the statute, though not specified by name, and therefore the Secretary of the Interior should be allowed to act on its behalf.

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CARCIERI v. SALAZAR. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 25 August 2015. <>.
CARCIERI v. SALAZAR, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, (last visited August 25, 2015).
"CARCIERI v. SALAZAR," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 25, 2015,