Patchak v. Zinke (Decision February 27, 2018)

Scales of Justice

Congress stripped jurisdiction right out from under Patchak, and the Supreme Court approved it.

Usually, courts are deciding cases - not Congress. That's what Patchak argued when the federal court dismissed his case citing a fresh act of Congress.

Patchak had sued the federal government over a casino that was going up near his home. The government had granted some land to a tribe of Pottawatomi Indians so the tribe could build and operate the casino. Patchak objected that the casino would disturb the nature of the area.

Patchak v. Zinke Decision

Congress didn't want Patchak's case to have a chance. The new law described Patchak's case specifically and ordered it to be dismissed. It stripped Patchak's case of jurisdiction while the case was ongoing.

Usually Congress can define jurisdiction

The Constitution gives Congress the power to create federal courts and to define which cases belong in them (jurisdiction). This applies to all lower (non-Supreme Court) federal courts.

But Congress doesn't usually do it in the middle of the game. Patchak appealed the dismissal, arguing Congress cannot use its legislative (rule-making) powers to resolve live cases (the job of the courts).

The ruling

It turns out Congress' jurisdiction power can affect live cases. The Supreme Court ruled that Congress can create a new law that applies retroactively to end a live case. As long as Congress' effect comes by way of a new law (and not ordering resolution based on existing law), its action does not violate the Constitution.

More information

Read our argument explainer on the case, which identifies the cases the Court considered in making its decision.


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