[¶ 1] The Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Land Use Regulation Commission appeal from a judgment entered in the Superior Court (Kennebec County, Humphrey, J.) vacating LURC's approval of the Tribe's application for the rezoning of a parcel of land in Albany Township. The court concluded that the parcel was not "Indian territory" as defined by 30 M.R.S.A. § 6205 (1996) and therefore concluded, as a matter of law, that a proposed high stakes bingo facility could not be built on that parcel. See 17 M.R.S.A. § 314-A(5) (Supp.1999). We agree with the Superior Court that the Albany land is not yet Indian territory, and we affirm the judgment.
[¶ 2] In 1980, the State of Maine reached a settlement with the Passamaquoddy Tribe and two other tribes regarding these tribes' land claims against the state. To facilitate the settlement,
[¶ 3] In 1988, the Tribe purchased a parcel of land in Albany Township from a tribal member. On January 7, 1992, following approval by the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, a bill was introduced in the Legislature on behalf of the Tribe which amended 30 M.R.S.A. § 6205 to include the Albany parcel among the lands which could potentially become Passamaquoddy Indian territory. See L.D.2081 (115th Legis.1992). The bill was passed and signed into law on March 23, 1992, and became effective on June 30, 1992. See P.L.1991, ch. 720 (hereinafter 1992 Amendment).
[¶ 4] Section 6205 also contained a preexisting requirement that any such land be transferred to the Secretary in trust and certified as accepted by the Secretary on or before January 31, 1991, in order finally to become Indian territory. See 30 M.R.S.A. § 6205. The 1992 Amendment did not amend that date. The prerequisite of the 1991 approval, therefore, created a conundrum. The Secretary of the Interior could not accept the land in trust until the state formally approved it for the trust. Yet, the state approved the Albany land for placement in trust within a statutory scheme that required, in order for the land to become Indian territory, that the Secretary of the Interior accept the land before the date that the Legislature approved it for placement in trust. Although the Tribe ultimately did transfer the parcel to the Secretary, the acceptance by the Secretary was not accomplished until over two and a half years later, on October 21, 1994.
[¶ 5] In 1997, acting on the assumption that the land in question was Indian territory as required by 17 M.R.S.A. § 314-A(5), the Tribe applied to LURC requesting that the Albany parcel be rezoned as "General Development," and further requesting that a development permit be issued to allow construction of a high stakes bingo facility. Various governmental bodies reviewed and commented on the proposal. Several voiced significant concerns.
[¶ 6] Area residents requested a public hearing. Jeffrey Rosenblatt, on behalf of himself, Evelyn Kimball, and others, petitioned to intervene. LURC received a number of letters opposing the project. In
[¶ 7] LURC held a two-day hearing at which it considered both prefiled statements and live testimony. Additional post-hearing materials were submitted on both sides of the issue. Rosenblatt sought to keep the record open for the filing of additional facts. After denying Rosenblatt's request, LURC granted both the rezoning request and the development permit. Petitions for judicial review were filed in the Superior Court by Rosenblatt, on behalf of himself and others, and by Evelyn Kimball and Margaret Wille. See 5 M.R.S.A. § 11001-11008 (1989); M.R. Civ. P. 80C. Both the Rosenblatt Petitioners and the Kimball Petitioners filed motions to supplement the agency record in the Superior Court, which were granted in part by the court (Alexander, J.).
[¶ 8] After a hearing, the Superior Court (Humphrey, J.) held that the Albany parcel was not Indian territory under section 6205. Because high stakes bingo would be an illegal use on land that is not Indian territory, the court concluded that LURC's rezoning of the parcel was improper and that LURC had erred as a matter of law when it granted a development permit for an illegal use. The Tribe, LURC, and the Kimball and Rosenblatt Petitioners each appealed from the court's judgment.
[¶ 9] The matter before us requires us to determine whether the Albany land has become Indian territory. To do so, we must determine the consequences of the Legislature's omission of a new deadline for acceptance by the Secretary.
A. The Statute
[¶ 10] There is no dispute that the casino the Tribe wishes to build may only be placed on "Passamaquoddy Indian territory." Passamaquoddy Indian territory is defined in the Implementing Act as "that territory defined by section 6205, subsection 1." 30 M.R.S.A. § 6203(6) (1996). Section 6205, subsection 1 describes Passamaquoddy Indian territory as including the Passamaquoddy Indian Reservation, see 30 M.R.S.A. § 6205(1)(A), and the first 150,000 acres of land acquired by the Secretary of the Interior for the benefit of the Tribe, see 30 M.R.S.A. § 6205(1)(B). In order to become Indian territory pursuant to section 6205(1)(B), those lands must be identified in section 6205, must be acquired by the Secretary prior to January 31, 1991, must be certified by the Secretary as held for the benefit of the Tribe by January 31, 1991, and must not be held in common with any other person or entity. Id.
[¶ 11] The final paragraph of section 6205 creates a further limitation on the creation of new "Indian territory."
B. Applicability of Section 6205(5)
[¶ 12] Because the land does not meet the requirements of the plain language of section 6205(1)(B), the Tribe argues that section 6205(5)
provides a freestanding method for the creation of Indian territory. It further asserts that the elements of this section have been met and that therefore the Albany land has become Indian territory notwithstanding the temporal requirement of subsection 1.
[¶ 13] Subsection 5 provides prerequisites to the creation of new Indian territory "other than [the lands] described in subsections 1, 2, 3, or 4." It appears to place limitations on the creation of new Indian territory and permits the creation of that territory only if its requirements are met.
[¶ 14] When the Legislature enacted P.L.1991, ch. 720, it authorized the addition of "any lands in Albany Township..." acquired "by the secretary prior to January 31, 1991." No lands in Albany Township satisfy that legislative condition and, therefore, the Tribe cannot rely on the legislation signed into law on March 23, 1992, see L.D.2081 (115th Legis.1992), to satisfy the statutory prerequisites of section 6205(5). The Tribe's reliance on the provisions of section 6205(5) cannot substitute for compliance with the explicit requirements of section 6205(1)(B).
C. Interpretation of Section 6205(1)(B)
[¶ 15] We turn then to the task of addressing the amendments to section 6205(1)(B) by which the Albany land was added to those properties that may become Indian territory. The difficulty presented by the Tribe's current effort to use the Albany land as Indian territory may be stated as follows: when the Legislature amended section 6205(1)(B) in 1992 to add the Albany land to those properties specifically named as eligible to become Indian territory, it did not amend the statute to extend the 1991 date by which the Secretary must acquire that Albany parcel land in trust and certify it as held for the Tribe's benefit. Although the land had been purchased by the Tribe before the bill was enacted, it had not been acquired by the Secretary nor certified as held for the Tribe's benefit, nor could it have been taken by the Secretary prior to legislative action in 1992. See 25 U.S.C. § 1724(d).
[¶ 16] LURC and the Tribe argue that the Legislature's intent in enacting the 1992 Amendment was to allow the Albany land to become Indian territory, within a reasonable period of time, without further action on the part of the Legislature. They urge us to effectuate that legislative intent either by declining to accept the plain language of section 6205(1)(B) or by augmenting that language to allow acceptance by the Secretary on the date the land was actually accepted.
[¶ 17] The intervenors argue that we need not consider legislative intent because the language of the statute is plain on its face. Because the statute is neither ambiguous nor absurd on its face, they argue that the court properly confined its construction of the statute to the plain meaning of its words. In addition, they assert that, even if we were to look to legislative intent, it is not possible to discern the Legislature's intent with regard to the date by which the Secretary must certify the land.
1. Canons of Statutory Interpretation
[¶ 18] Because statutory construction is a matter of law, we review decisions regarding the meaning of a statute de novo. See Estate of Jacobs, 1998 ME 233, ¶ 4, 719 A.2d 523, 524. We have set forth the general rules for statutory construction as follows:
Coker v. City of Lewiston, 1998 ME 93, ¶ 7, 710 A.2d 909, 910 (citations omitted). "`If the meaning of this language is plain, we must interpret the statute to mean exactly what it says.'" Rowe v. Chapman Trucking, 629 A.2d 1224, 1226 (Me.1993) (quoting Concord Gen. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Patrons Oxford Mut. Ins. Co., 411 A.2d 1017, 1020 (Me.1980)). Stated succinctly, when the language chosen by the Legislature is clear and without ambiguity, it is not the role of the court to look behind those clear words in order to ascertain what the court may conclude was the Legislature's intent.
[¶ 19] These rules of construction are applied to effectuate several purposes. First, the court should give meaning to the language chosen by the Legislature to the greatest extent possible. See Opinion of the Justices, 460 A.2d 1341, 1346 (Me. 1982). Second, the court has no role in attempting to divine legislative intent where the words chosen by the Legislature are clear and unambiguous. See Rowe, 629 A.2d at 1226. And finally, only when the words are susceptible of multiple meanings, or render the enactment an absurdity or nullity, should the court explore indicia of legislative intent. See Coker, 1998 ME 93, ¶ 7, 710 A.2d at 910.
2. Treatment of Unambiguous Language
[¶ 20] Here, the language used by the Legislature is not ambiguous. It is not necessary to interpret the language of the provisions at issue in order to understand its meaning. Applying that language to the matter at hand, the Albany parcel met all of the conditions precedent to becoming Indian territory except one-it was not
[¶ 21] We must decide, then, not whether legislative intent will bring clarity to an ambiguity, but whether the plain and unambiguous language of the Act, which appears not to have included the final amendment necessary to the transmutation of the land into Indian territory, may be augmented by the Court in order to complete the process.
[¶ 22] The only circumstance where we may go behind the plain language of an unambiguous statute to discern the Legislature's true intent is where the language at issue renders the enactment absurd or a nullity. See Coker, 1998 ME 93, ¶ 7, 710 A.2d at 910; Struck v. Hackett, 668 A.2d 411, 417 (Me.1995). An enactment will be considered a nullity when it has no effect whatsoever. See Opinion of the Justices, 460 A.2d at 1346. That is not the case here. The action by the Legislature cannot be considered a nullity because the Albany land has, in fact, been identified and added to the list of lands that may become Indian territory upon the completion of other acts. Completion of the process may yet occur upon the Legislature's extension of the date by which the Secretary of the Interior must have accepted the land in trust. The Legislature knows how to amend that date; it had extended the date on multiple occasions prior to its addition of the Albany land to subsection 1.
[¶ 23] For similar reasons, the provision does not constitute an absurdity. An absurdity may occur when the enactment is so contrary to the plain understanding of legislative intent and the entire statutory scheme within which the amendment falls that enforcement of the plain language would be wholly unreasonable. The enactment at issue simply did not contain a necessary step toward creation of Indian territory. Nothing in the language of the Act or the provisions of the federal Settlement Act persuades us that the omission of that step renders the enactment an absurdity. See Ballard v. Edgar, 268 A.2d 884, 887 (Me.1970) (recognizing the possibility that the language resulted from "mere legislative inadvertence,"
[¶ 24] Moreover, even if we were to accept the Tribe's argument that the missing extension of the deadline renders the language of section 6205(1) ambiguous or absurd, there is no basis in the record from which we could divine a new deadline for the Secretary's acceptance. In order to bridge the gap between the plain language of the statute and the result sought by the Tribe, we would need to read into the statute a particular date, somehow applicable only to the Albany parcel,
[¶ 25] The difficulty of such speculation becomes evident upon asking the question: what date did the Legislature intend? In the absence of any guidance on that point, we would have to infer a logical date. If we inferred a date that was exactly one year from the enactment of the original addition of the Albany land to section 6205(1), the land would still not have become Indian territory because it was not accepted by the Secretary within that year. Similarly, if we inferred a date exactly two years from the date of the statute's enactment, the Tribe's desired result would still not have been accomplished. In the end we would be required, with the benefit of hindsight, to decide today that the Legislature meant to allow the Secretary of the Interior to accept the land more that two and one half years after the statute was enacted.
[¶ 26] Just as we are not free to interpret a statute so as to render a provision a surplusage, see Struck, 668 A.2d at 417, such as would be the case were we to read out of the statute the existing date of January 31, 1991, so too we are not free to substitute a different date for the existing one. Such speculation and legislative redrafting is wholly outside of our role as a court.
[¶ 27] Although it is apparent that the Legislature intended to begin the process of creating Indian territory in the Albany parcel, it did not complete the steps necessary to accomplish that goal. It is the role of the Legislature, not this Court, to determine if, when, and under what circumstances the land should actually become Indian territory. Because the parcel has
The entry is:
25 U.S.C.A. § 1724(d) (1983) (emphasis added).
30 M.R.S.A. § 6205(1)(B).
30 M.R.S.A. § 6205(5) (1996).