U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Supports Tribes in Reimbursement Dispute in Ruling with Unusual Lineup


The lineup is unusual in a U.S. Supreme Court decision today supporting Native American tribes in a dispute with the federal government.

The 5-4 ruling held that tribes contracting with the Interior Department to run government services must be paid the full amount promised, despite a collective cap on reimbursement for tribal programs imposed by Congress. The services provided include law enforcement, environmental protection and agricultural assistance.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion (PDF) in Salazar v. Ramah Navajo Chapter. She was joined by Justices Elena Kagan, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

SCOTUSblog describes the ruling this way: “The federal government is often accused of spending money it does not have. It may have to do just that, a divided Supreme Court decided on Monday, if it signs a contract that promises to pay in full when the work is done, but runs out of the money provided by Congress.”

The dissenters noted a contract provision that payments are “subject to the availability of appropriations.”

The Guardian spoke with Sidley Austin lawyer Jonathan Cohn, who represented the tribes. Cohn said that it is unusual for Native American issues to reach the Supreme Court, and even rarer for the court to side with the tribes.

“The government was trying to treat tribal contractors differently from all other contractors,” Cohn told the publication. “If you were talking about a defense contractor, I don’t think this case would have reached the Supreme Court—the government would have paid up long ago.”

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