FROM THE ARCHIVE

Excerpts: U.S. v. Navajo Nation

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TUESDAY, MARCH 4, 2003

Following are excerpts from the Supreme Court's opinion in U.S. v. Navajo Nation, No. 01-1067, decided March 4, 2003.

From the Majority [Ginsburg]:
"The Tribe’s principal contention is that the [Indian Mineral Leasing Act's] statutory and regulatory scheme, viewed in its entirety, attaches fiduciary duties to each Government function under that scheme, and that the Secretary acted in contravention of those duties by approving the 12˝ percent royalty contained in the amended Lease. We read the IMLA differently. As we see it, the statute and regulations at issue do not provide the requisite 'substantive law' that 'mandat[es] compensation by the Federal Government.'

. . .

Instead, the Secretary’s involvement in coal leasing under the IMLA more closely resembles the role provided for the Government by the [General Allotment Act] regarding allotted forest lands.

. . .

Moreover, as in Mitchell I, imposing fiduciary duties on the Government here would be out of line with one of the statute’s principal purposes. The GAA was designed so that 'the allottee, and not the United States, … [would] manage the land.; Imposing upon the Government a fiduciary duty to oversee the management of allotted lands would not have served that purpose. So too here. The IMLA aims to enhance tribal self-determination by giving Tribes, not the Government, the lead role in negotiating mining leases with third parties."

From the Dissent [Souter]:
"The Court, however, errs in the opposite direction, giving overriding weight to the interest of tribal autonomy to the point of concluding that the Secretary’s approval obligation cannot be an onerous one, thus losing sight of the mixture of congressional objectives. The standard of responsibility simply cannot give the whole hog to the one congressional policy or the other.

. . .

While this is not the case to essay any ultimate formulation of a balanced standard, even a reticent formulation of the fiduciary obligation would require the Secretary to withhold approval if he had good reason to doubt that the negotiated rate was within the range of reasonable market rates for the coal in question, or if he had reason to know that the Tribe had been placed under an unfair disadvantage at the negotiating table by his very own acts. See Restatement (Second) of Trusts §§170, 173, 174, 176 (1957). And those modest standards are enough to keep the present suit in court, for the Tribe has pleaded a breach of trust in each respect and has submitted evidence to get past summary judgment on either alternative.

. . .

The record discloses serious indications that the 12˝ percent royalty rate in the lease amendments was substantially less than fair market value for the Tribe’s high quality coal.

What is more, the Tribe has made a powerful showing that the Secretary knew perfectly well how his own intervention on behalf of Peabody had derailed the lease adjustment proceeding that would in all probability have yielded the 20 percent rate. After his ex parte meeting with Peabody’s representatives, the Secretary put his name on the memorandum, drafted by Peabody, directing Deputy Assistant Secretary Fritz to withhold his decision affirming the 20 percent rate; directing him to mislead the Tribe by telling it that no decision on the merits of the adjustment was imminent, when in fact the affirmance had been prepared for Fritz’s signature; and directing him to encourage the Tribe to shift its attention from the Area Director’s appealed award of 20 percent and return to the negotiating table, where 20 percent was never even a possibility."

Get the Decision:
Syllabus | Opinion [Ginsburg] | Dissent [Souter]

Relevant 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:
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)

Relevant Links:
U.S. Supreme Court - http://www.supremecourtus.gov
Navajo Nation - http://www.navajo.org

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