President Russell Begaye of the Navajo Nation. Photo: Navajo Nation Office of President and Vice President

Navajo Nation prevails in dispute over self-determination contract

The Navajo Nation is entitled to seek additional funds for a self-determination contract, a federal appeals court ruled.

The tribe sought $17 million from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to fund its judicial branch. The agency rejected the request, instead awarding a mere $1.3 million.

The tribe, though, argued it was entitled to the larger amount because the BIA failed to make a decision in a timely manner. Self-determination law requires the agency to take action within 90 days of having "received" a proposal for an annual funding agreement, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals noted on Tuesday.

The BIA "received" the tribe's request on October 4, 2013, meaning it should have made a decision by January 2, 2014, according to the court. Instead, the agency waited another 13 days to deny the proposal.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals oral arguments in Navajo Nation v. DOI

The BIA seemingly had a good reason for the delay. At the time, the agency was in a partial shutdown because Congress failed to fund the federal government's operations.

But Judge David B. Sentelle, writing for the majority, said a BIA employee at the Navajo Regional Office in Gallup, New Mexico, in fact "received" the tribe's proposal on October 4, 2013, and sent it to the contracting official who was in charge of making decisions. It's not the tribe's fault that the official in question was furloughed, he wrote.

Furthermore, the contracting official returned to work 13 days later and was ready to reject the tribe's agreement as soon as November 7 of that year, Kavanaugh wrote. He said it was unfair for the tribe to have waited until January 2014 for the decision from the Department of the Interior, the BIA's parent agency.

"DOI concedes that the BIA had sufficient time to review and respond to the proposal by asserting that 'the BIA’s declination analysis did not change after November 7' and the BIA 'could have issued its declination decision at any time after November 7,'" the decision stated. "Yet, inexplicably, it failed to do so. The court will not reward DOI’s lack of diligence in the name of “equity.'"

With its claim revived by the court, the tribe can now seek a larger amount for the funding agreement, which covered fiscal year 2013. The decision likely benefits another similar lawsuit being pursued by the tribe for fiscal year 2014.

The Navajo Nation Judicial Branch is the largest and most comprehensive system of its kind in Indian Country. It consists of several district courts, a Supreme Court that has traveled across the nation to hear cases, a traditional justice program and probation services.

"Pursuant to Diné bi beenahaz’ áanii, the Judicial Branch will carefully develop a justice system that fully embodies the traditional values and processes of the Navajo People," the branch wrote in its first quarter 2017 report.

The judicial branch is funded at $13 million for fiscal year 2017, according to the report.

Turtle Talk has posted documents from the case, Navajo Nation v. Department of the Interior.

D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Navajo Nation v. DOI (April 4, 2017)

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