Interior loses two tribal cases in 'bad day for the government'

The Supreme Court today ruled against the Interior Department in two cases concerning American Indian tribes.

In the first case, the court ruled in favor of a tribe in its dispute with Interior over how much tribal contractors are paid for carrying out government work.

In the second, the justices ruled that a man who objects to a proposed Indian casino could sue the government over the objection of Interior and the tribe in question.

"It's a bad day for the government," Robert Anderson, director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington School of Law, said of the two rulings.

The court, split 5-4, held in the contracting case, Salazar v. Ramah Navajo Chapter, that the government is required to pay in full for work that tribes carry out administering federal programs even though Congress has set a statutory cap on how much can be paid.


A certified class of Indians, including the Ramah Navajo Chapter, had sued Interior, claiming they had not been paid the required amount, citing the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the tribes, prompting Interior to seek Supreme Court review.

Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the ruling was "consistent with longstanding principles of government contracting law."

When an agency has difficulties meeting its contractual obligations, "it is the government that must bear the fiscal consequences, not the contractor," she added.

The ruling saw the court split along unusual lines, with Sotomayor, who was appointed by President Obama, joined by conservatives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, in addition to regular swing vote Anthony Kennedy and fellow Obama appointee Elena Kagan.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote a dissenting opinion, in which he was joined by liberals Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg as well as conservative Samuel Alito.

Roberts wrote that the majority's reasoning created an insurmountable conflict with the statutory language. The court's conclusion "cannot be squared with these unambiguous restrictions on the payment of contract support costs," he added.

An Interior spokesman said officials were "reviewing the ruling" but had no further immediate comment.

The ruling is likely to lead to other tribes succeeding with similar claims, according to Anderson. Additional payments could range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions, he said.

The second case concerned a dispute about American Indian lands in Michigan that were taken into trust by the federal government so the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians could build a casino. Such a move is required under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

The justices, divided 8-1 with Sotomayor dissenting, held that David Patchak, who objected to the casino plan, has standing to raise his objections to the proposal in court.

The two related cases, Salazar v. Patchak and Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians v. Patchak, arose from a campaign against the casino plan and focused in part on whether individuals could sue the government in an effort to stop the land being taken into trust.

In the majority opinion, Kagan said Patchak has standing to sue under the Administrative Procedure Act, the law that allows parties to challenge agency decisions.

The ruling is a further sign that "when the government tries to avoid judicial review, they haven't been very successful," Anderson said.

Click here to read the ruling in Salazar v. Ramah Navajo Chapter.

Click here to read the ruling in Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians v. Patchak.

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