Law

Supreme Court backs tribes in self-determination contract case





The U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision today in Salazar v . Ramah Navajo Chapter, a self-determination case.

By a close 5-4 vote, the justices ruled that the federal government must pay contract support costs to tribes that enter into agreements to manage federal programs. The decision is a victory for tribes who have not received all of the federal funds they are promised.

"Consistent with longstanding principles of government contracting law, we hold that the government must pay each tribe’s contract support costs in full," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority.

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act authorizes the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service to enter into contracts with tribes and Alaska Native entities to manage federal programs. The law requires the government to pay for the cost of the programs, plus additional "contract support costs."

Congress, however, has failed to provide enough appropriations to cover the contract support costs. But that doesn't excuse the executive branch, the court determined.

"We stressed that the government’s obligation to pay contract support costs should be treated as an ordinary contract promise, noting that ISDA 'uses the word ‘contract’ 426 times to describe the nature of the Government’s promise,'" Sotomayor wrote, quoting from the Supreme Court's 2005 decision in Cherokee Nation v. Leavitt, another self-determination case.

Supreme Court Decision:
Salazar v. Ramah Navajo Chapter (June 18, 2012)

Oral Argument Transcript:
Ramah Navajo Chapter v. Salazar (April 28, 2012)

10th Circuit Decision:
Ramah Navajo Chapter v. Salazar (May 9, 2011)

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Supreme Court agrees to take up self-determination dispute (01/09)
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10th Circuit sides with tribes on self-determination contracts (5/9)