US Shortchanged Native American Tribes by Millions, Supreme Court Rules

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Common Dreams

US Shortchanged Native American Tribes by Millions, Supreme Court Rules

Native Americans to get millions after 'big victory'

by
Common Dreams staff

Navajo fire fighters head out for the night shift to put out a fire in 2011 (AFP/Getty Images/Kevork Djansezian)

In a Supreme Court decision announced on Monday, justices ruled that the United States government has shortchanged the Ramah Navajo Chapter among several other Native American tribes by millions of dollars in public service contracts.

The justices sided 5-4 with the tribes in a class action suit claiming unfair treatment by the department of the interior.

Under the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975 Native American tribes were given contracts from the federal government to run public services such as police, schools, hospitals, environmental services and more. According to the ruling, the government began to shortchange payments for these services by implementing a payment 'ceiling', which capped the amount of money allotted to the tribes for their services, no longer paying for each contract in full.

"Consistent with longstanding principles of government contracting law, we hold that the government must pay each tribe's contract support costs in full," wrote justice Sonya Sotomayor, delivering the court's opinion.

"The government was trying to treat tribal contractors differently from all other contractors. 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," said the tribe's lawyer Jonathan Cohn.

Rodger Martinez, president of the Ramah Navajo Chapter in New Mexico stated, "This gets us back to the principle that the government must pay us what we are entitled to."

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The Guardian/UK: Native American tribes owed millions from government, supreme court rules

Native American tribes are celebrating a major victory in their battle for equal treatment after the US supreme court ruled that the government could no longer short-change them over contracts for public services.

In a ruling announced on Monday, the justices sided 5-4 with the tribes, who had taken out a class action suit complaining that they were being treated unfairly by the department of the interior.

The suit claimed that the government had over many years withheld millions of dollars owed to the tribes by imposing a cap on the contracts it had taken out with them.

Native American leaders hailed the ruling as an important victory. Rodger Martinez, president of the Ramah Navajo Chapter in New Mexico that was a plaintiff in the case, said they had been saddened that they had to go all the way to the supreme court to find redress. [...]

Jonathan Cohn of the Washington-based law firm Sidley Austin, who jointly represented the tribes, said the judgment was a "big victory for the tribes. The government must fulfill its commitments and ensure the tribes get paid."

Cohn said that it was rare for Native American issues to reach the supreme court, and even rarer for the court to side with the tribes. At the heart of the case, he added, was the principle of equal treatment.

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MSNBC: Native Americans to get millions after 'big victory' in Supreme Court

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion for Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan. Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito dissented.

"We stressed that the government's obligation to pay contract support costs should be treated as an ordinary contract promise," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority ruling which confirmed a Colorado appeals court decision.

"The government was obligated to pay the tribes' contract support costs in full."

Congress allocated $1.6 billion to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for "the operations of Indian programs" in 2000, according to news agency AFP, but only $120.2 million was paid out.

"Between FY [financial year] 1994 and 2001, appropriations covered only between 77% and 92% of tribes' aggregate contract support costs," the judgment read.

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