Gorsuch Pushes the US Federal Indian Law Envelope…Up to a Point

Neil Gorsuch’s adherence to a judicial philosophy of “strict interpretation” was lauded by conservatives in the run-up to his confirmation as a Justice of the US Supreme Court. Ed Whelan, in the National Review (February 1, 2017), called Gorsuch “a brilliant jurist and dedicated originalist and textualist,” and said he would be “A Supreme Successor to Justice Scalia.” David Savage, in the Los Angeles Times (March 24, 2017), said “Gorsuch…appears to be a strict ‘textualist’ who believes in following the exact words of a law, even if doing so leads to a seemingly unfair or undesired result.” Most observers shared the view that Gorsuch would embrace the rightward tilt of the court fostered by Antonin Scalia, the justice he would replace. 

Notwithstanding these expectations, Justice Gorsuch’s authorship of US Supreme Court opinions in two major federal Indian law decisions shows that the conservative “strict interpretation, originalist” approach to legal reasoning can have consequences surprisingly pleasing to those who have fought for the rights of Native Americans for centuries. 

In Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den, Inc. (2019), Gorsuch upheld Yakama Nation Treaty rights to use Washington state highways, in the face of strong objections by both state and the federal governments. In his concurring opinion, he pointed out that the Yakama Treaty explicitly reserves “the right, in common with citizens of the United States, to travel upon all public highways.” He rejected Washington and US arguments that the phrase “in common with” means the Yakama are in the same position as state citizens and must pay state road taxes. To the contrary, Gorsuch wrote, “In the Yakama language, the term ‘in common with’ . . . suggest[ed] public use or general use without restriction.” Relying on a strict reading of the Treaty language, Gorsuch brushed aside objections from supposedly stricter colleagues (Roberts, Thomas, Alito, and Kavanaugh) who warned of “dire consequences” if the Yakama could freely use state roads. 

In McGirt v. Oklahoma (2020), Gorsuch upheld the terms of Creek Nation Treaties that “solemnly guarantied” a “permanent home to the whole Creek nation…[where no] State or Territory [shall] ever have a right to pass laws for the government of such Indians, but they shall be allowed to govern themselves.” Oklahoma and the federal government strongly opposed any reliance on the terms of the Treaties. They argued that Creek government had been “terminated” by a series of state and federal actions. Gorsuch said their arguments were based on “extratextual sources” concocted from “some stray language from a statute that does not control here, a piece of congressional testimony there, and the scattered opinions of agency officials everywhere in between.” He rejected them all as efforts “to sow doubt around express treaty promises.” 

Gorsuch’s opinions in Cougar Den and McGirt stand for the proposition that the philosophy of “strict interpretation” requires close adherence to all texts, not simply US constitutional texts. Moreover, Gorsuch emphasized that the principle of strictly interpreting the text of a Treaty also means affirming the treaty process. As he put it in Cougar Den, “If the State and federal governments do not like that result [of the 1855 Treaty], they are free to bargain for more, but they do not get to rewrite the existing bargain in this Court.” Similarly in McGirt, Gorsuch responded to the dissenters’ worry about “drastic consequences” of affirming the Creek Treaties by saying Oklahoma “has negotiated … intergovernmental agreements… with the Creek” and “the spirit of good faith, ‘comity and cooperative sovereignty’ behind these agreements” will sustain future negotiations.

Gorsuch has changed the climate in the US Supreme Court’s federal Indian law jurisprudence in ways not imaginable in recent years. At the National Congress of American Indians 70th Annual Convention in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in October 2013, Richard Guest, the Native American Rights Fund’s lead staff attorney in Washington, sounded an alarm. Gale Toensing reported in Indian Country Today (28 October 2013) that Guest said, “We’ve had one win and nine losses in front of the Roberts court. And our message … is …: Stay out of the courts!” Guest added, “the majority of judges” on the Supreme Court are “very conservative, have no understanding of Indian country at all. No interest in your issues.” Four years later, a ray of optimism appeared in a NARF “Indian Law Perspective” (16 March 2017) on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch, concluding, “Judge Gorsuch has significant experience with federal Indian law, appears to be attentive to detail, and respectful to the fundamental principles of tribal sovereignty and the federal trust responsibility.”

The fact that Justice Gorsuch has emerged as a serious scholar of Treaties and Treaty history is important. But it is not sufficient to remake US federal Indian law in the way it needs to be remade. His opinions in Cougar Den and McGirt, and his joining the four “liberal” justices to affirm Crow Nation hunting rights in Herrera v. Wyoming (2019) are indeed significant legal victories for the Yakama, Creek, and Crow nations. But none of those decisions reached and overturned the fundamental federal Indian law doctrine of US domination over Indigenous lands and peoples—the doctrine of “Christian discovery.” 

In a nutshell, Christian discovery doctrine says the US has “title” to all Indigenous lands and “plenary power” over Indigenous nations and peoples. The US Supreme Court adopted Christian discovery in 1823 in Johnson v. McIntosh, where it relied on this relic of 15th century colonialism to declare that Indigenous nations are “mere occupants” of their lands, not owners. The doctrine of domination persists in US law to this day. In fact, it is the unstated basis for the McGirtand Herrera opinions, each of which focuses on whether the US Congress has “clearly expressed” an intention to breach the terms of a Treaty. The presumption that Congress has the right to unilaterally breach US Treaty obligations rests on the doctrinal platform of Christian discovery. 

Gorsuch stated the Christian discovery presumption this way in McGirt: “This Court long ago held that the Legislature wields significant constitutional authority when it comes to tribal relations, possessing even the authority to breach its own promises and treaties. Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903). But that power, this Court has cautioned, belongs to Congress alone. Nor will this Court lightly infer such a breach….” By citing Lone Wolf, Gorsuch avoided having to cite the original case, Johnson v. McIntosh, but his focus on “Congressional intent” derives from that root.

McGirt invoked Christian discovery in another cryptic citation purporting to explain why the US can “allow non-Indian settlers to own land on [a] reservation.” Gorsuch wrote, “It isn’t so hard to see why.” He explained that federal homesteader patents “transferred legal title” to Creek land, but “no one thinks … this diminished the United States’s claim to sovereignty. To accomplish that would require an act of cession, the transfer of a sovereign claim from one nation to another.” He then cited “3 E. Washburn, American Law of Real Property *521–*524.” This reference is to a chapter in Emory Washburn’s 1868 A Treatise on the American Law of Real Property discussing “title by public grant.” The chapter begins with a discussion of “the discovery and settlement of this country by Europeans” and says, “Nor has any title, beyond the right of occupation, been recognized in the native tribes by any of the European governments or their successors, the Colonies, the States, or the United States. The law in this respect seems to have been uniform with all the Christian nations that planted colonies here. They recognized no seisin [ownership] of lands on the part of Indian dwellers upon it.” Washburn then says, “The sovereignty and general property of the soil …were claimed …by right of discovery.” This sentence carries a footnote to Johnson v. McIntosh

Gorsuch is subtle, more subtle by far than Justice Ginsburg, whose opinion in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of N. Y. (2005) rejected Oneida land title by saying, “Under the ‘doctrine of discovery,’ fee title to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign—first the discovering European nation and later the original States and the United States.” (Ginsburg didn’t have the nerve to say “Christian discovery.”)

The fact that McGirt ruled in favor of the Creek Nation provides an excuse of sorts for not looking into the doctrinal basis of the decision. Many commentators, like Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! (10 July 2020), have gushingly described the decision as “a major victory for Indigenous sovereignty.” But make no mistake; McGirt rests on the old doctrine of US domination. First, the decision actually upheld US sovereignty, saying the Creek Nation continues to exist only because the US Congress has not (yet) “clearly terminated” it. Second, on the criminal jurisdiction issue, it upheld application of the federal Major Crimes Act, an assertion of US domination over Indigenous nations’ own criminal jurisdiction. 

Gorsuch has pushed the envelope of federal Indian law, but he and the court are still entirely within that envelope. In Cougar Den, the Yakama Nation stepped entirely outside the envelope and challenged the doctrine of Christian discovery in its September 2018 amicus brief . The Yakama brief said Christian discovery doctrine is “the legal fiction that Christian Europeans immediately and automatically acquired legally recognized property rights in our lands upon reaching the Americas.” The Yakama called on the court “to repudiate the doctrine of Christian discovery and its racist foundations as the basis for federal Indian law.” The Yakama strategy was effective: The court majority, faced with a choice between the Yakama Treaty and the doctrine of religious domination, chose the Treaty. In fact, even the dissenting justices avoided arguments based on Christian discovery and focused only on Treaty language.

It’s possible Gorsuch believes that adhering to treaties is the most that can be done; perhaps he also believes that if enough treaties are adhered to the way would open for a true acknowledgment of Indigenous nationhood and self-government. In any event, the court will only reach the root doctrine if the doctrine is challenged. It remains to be seen how many other Indigenous nations follow the Yakama Nation and call for abandonment of the federal Indian law claim of domination. That would be an historic turning point in US law.