Supreme Court splits trust decisions down the middle
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A deeply divided Supreme Court today issued its rulings on two breach of trust cases.

In a 6-3 ruling, the court struck down the Navajo Nation's landmark $600 million claim. Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said federal law doesn't authorize the tribe's suit against the Department of Interior for approving a lease at less than fair market value.

Joining Ginsburg were Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer. Dissenting were Justices David Souter, John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O'Connor.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court upheld the White Mountain Apache Tribe's $14 million suit. The court said the Arizona tribe's claim against the Interior for dilapidated school and other buildings fell within the bounds of a full fiduciary relationship, thus giving rise to damage for any breach.

The majority opinion was written by Justice Souter and joined by Justices Stevens, O'Connor, Ginsburg and Breyer. All are considered liberal, with O'Connor often siding with tribes.

The dissent was authored by Justice Thomas and joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia and Kennedy.

In an interview from Tucson, Arizona, Robert Brauchli, an attorney for the Apache tribe, said Chairman Dallas Massey was "very happy" with the decision. Massey and other tribal officials are in Washington, D.C., week to lobby officials and members of Congress about the tribe's needs.

"What the White Mountain Apache Tribe has gone through -- this devastating fire that ate up over 220,000 acres of their reservation, forest land and sacred land -- they have had a hard time. The drought is hurting them," Brauchli said. "They had the guts to see this case through."

Massey was meeting with Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) when informed of the decision, Brauchli said.

The Navajo Nation hopes to respond to the decision later today, according to the tribe's Washington, D.C., office. Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. and Vice President Frank Dayish Jr. are also in D.C. this week.

A message was left in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with Paul Frye, the attorney handling the Navajo case.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), whose member tribes filed an amicus brief in support of the Navajo Nation, is also planning a response.

Excerpts: Apache | Excerpts: Navajo Nation

Navajo Nation:
Syllabus | Opinion [Ginsburg] | Dissent [Souter]

White Mountain Apache Tribe:
Syllabus | Opinion [Souter] | Concurrence [Ginsburg] | Dissent [Thomas]

Relevant Links:
U.S. Supreme Court -
Navajo Nation -
White Mountain Apache Tribe -

Related Stories:
Panel predicts Apache victory (12/4)
Court considers Navajo dispute (12/3)
U.S. pressed on trust duties (12/3)