FROM THE ARCHIVE

Supreme Court hears breach of trust cases

Facebook Twitter Email
MONDAY, DECEMBER 2, 2002

Two tribes go to the Supreme Court today to try and make the federal government honor its trust obligations.

For the White Mountain Apache Tribe of Arizona, the case is a familiar tale of government neglect. A set of historic school and other buildings are falling apart but the Department of Interior won't pay $14 million to fix them.

The Navajo Nation's case, on the other hand, illustrates the pitfalls of too much federal involvement. After being lobbied by an industry representative, Interior officials actively hid information from the tribe that resulted in a loss of $600 million in royalties from a coal mining agreement.

The facts surrounding each dispute differ significantly. But tribal leaders say a final ruling will have a major impact throughout Indian Country.

"What happens to White Mountain Apache and Navajo happens to all of us," said Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal organization.

The management of billions of dollars of Indian funds and 56 million acres of Indian land has been the single most important issue confronting tribes and individual Indians today. Feeling pressure from the courts and Congress, Bush administration officials also have been forced into action.

But the nation's highest court hasn't considered the issue since the early 1980s, when it rendered two important decisions. Named after Helen Mitchell, a member of the Quinault Nation of Washington, the cases set out the circumstances under which the United States was liable, or owed money, for breaches of trust to Indian beneficiaries.

According to Mitchell I, issued in 1980, the federal government is not liable for mismanagement claims on land held in trust under the General Allotment Act of 1887. In a 5-3 decision -- Chief Justice William Burger did not participate -- the Court said this "bare" trust does not give rise to an award of money damages.

"The Act does not unambiguously provide that the United States has undertaken full fiduciary responsibilities as to the management of allotted lands," Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote for the majority.

Left open was the question of whether other laws could support the Indian plaintiffs' case. Three years later, in Mitchell II, the Supreme Court answered yes and said an "elaborate" set of statues and regulations regarding the management of Indian assets created a fiduciary relationship.

"All of the necessary elements of a common-law trust are present: a trustee (the United States), a beneficiary (the Indian allottees), and a trust corpus (Indian timber, lands, and funds)," Marshall wrote in the 6-3 decision.

The Court also made a key holding at issue today. It ruled that the federal government waived sovereign immunity for claims "founded upon statutes or regulations that create substantive rights to money damages."

According to the Bush administration, neither tribes have satisfied this test. In several court briefs, Solicitor General Ted Olson of the Department of Justice argues that the federal laws cited by the tribes are silent with regard to the tribes' specific breach of trust claims.

"The United States fully accepts the implications of that relationship and the undertakings that go with it," Olson wrote in one of the court filings. "Not all those undertakings, however, create legally enforceable duties on the part of the United States, much less duties that are enforceable in a suit for money damages against the United States."

If the Justices agree, they would follow a pattern that has emerged in recent years. Tribes win at the appeals court level only to see their cases reversed at the Supreme Court.

A negative ruling has the potential to affect a number of pending mismanagement cases pending at the Federal Court of Claims. The Warm Springs Tribes of Oregon, for example, were recently awarded $14 million for a breach of trust claim, an award the Bush administration has appealed.

There are related trust management cases in the federal district court system. But like the Cobell case involving individual Indians, these typically involve claims for equitable relief, not money damages.

A ruling on today's cases is expected by June 2003.

White Mountain Apache Documents:
Supreme Court Docket Sheet: No. 01-1067 | Petition: United States | Response: United States | Merits Brief: United States | Reply Brief: United States

Navajo Nation Documents:
Supreme Court Docket Sheet No. 01-1375 | Petition: United States | Reply: United States | Merits: United States | Merits: Navajo Nation | Reply Brief: United States | Joint Appendix Vol. I | Joint Appendix Vol. II

Decisions Below:
White Mountain Apache Tribe v. US, No 00-5044 (Fed Cir. May 16, 2001) | NAVAJO NATION v. US, No 00-5086 (Fed Cir. August 10, 2001)

Related Decisions:
Mitchell I: UNITED STATES v. MITCHELL, 445 U.S. 535 (1980)
Mitchell II: UNITED STATES v. MITCHELL, 463 U.S. 206 (1983)

Related Stories:
Bush strategy assumes no trust mismanagement (11/05)
Trust fund plaintiffs awarded $1.7 million (10/30)
Review disputes 'costly' Indian trust litigation (10/21)
Tribes await Supreme showdown (10/17)
Peabody sides with Bush administration on trust (09/04)
U.S. argues limits as trustee (8/9)
Legal tactics land Peabody in hot seat (7/22)
Griles slammed for ignorance (7/12)
Griles can't explain trust standards (6/27)
Navajo royalty case accepted (6/4)
Don Hodel's Navajo Folly (6/4)
Supreme Court accepts Navajo trust case (6/3)
Navajo royalty case up for review (5/30)
Supreme Court considers 'deception' of trust (5/22)
Action due on Navajo trust case (5/20)
Court to decide limits of trust duty (4/23)
Supreme Court taking on trust (4/22)
Bush wants Navajo ruling reversed (3/27)
Leave no Apache school behind (3/29)
Court rules Navajo Nation owed money (8/14)
Apache Tribe wins trust case appeal (5/17)
Tribe wins trust case appeal (5/14)