The Obama administration remains firm in its opposition to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limits the federal government's authority to hold Indian tribal land in trust, Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes told a group of tribal leaders Tuesday.
The 2009 decision applies to tribes recognized by the federal government after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.
Hayes said the federal government opposes the Supreme Court's interpretation of the law, and argued Congress should extend the right to hold land in trust to every tribe, regardless of the date of its recognition.
The administration envisions a "future in which we do not let legalistic interpretations of the law stand in the way of extending basic rights," Hayes said at the National Congress of American Indians annual convention, which continues through Friday.
The high court's ruling "must be overturned," he said. His comments were met with cheers.
Hayes is the second highest-ranking official at the Interior Department. He said the Obama administration has worked to reverse a relationship between the federal government and Indian tribes that significantly deteriorated under George W. Bush's presidency.
"We respect the tribes as sovereigns. The Bush years had not been good in that regard," Hayes said. "We're working hard to change the way we do business with all of you."
The court case, known as Carcieri v. Salazar, has its roots in the Rhode Island-based Narragansett Indian Tribe's 1991 purchase of 31 acres of rural land. The question was whether the land should be under state law _ which includes a prohibition on casino gambling _ or whether the parcel should be governed by federal and tribal law.
Lawyers for the state of Rhode Island argued the tribe could not remove its land from state control using the Indian Reorganization Act because the Narragansett tribe was not recognized by the U.S. government when the act passed 77 years ago.
State leaders feared the tribe would create a tax-free zone undercutting local businesses, build a casino or that criminals could hide on tribal land safe from the reach of state law. That is still partly the fear from opponents of a change to the law on Capitol Hill, said Brian Patterson, president of the United South and Eastern Tribes Inc. But he disputed that lands put in trust would be used for gambling enterprises.
Patterson said the Supreme Court ruling creates two classes of tribes, those with recognition before 1934 and those without it.
"Even though a tribal nation may not have a shovel-ready project, it is still a matter of fundamental principle with the federal government," Patterson said. "Indian country has united on this issue. There's a consensus to build a path forward."
Nigel Duara can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/nigelduara