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Judge denies existence of trust relationship

A federal judge late last month rejected an Arizona tribe's attempt to recover legal fees that it said arose out of the United States' trust obligations.

In a December 27 decision, James F. Merow, a senior judge for the U.S. Court of Claims, said the Hopi Tribe, and not the federal government, was in control of its own destiny. Ruling that Congressional attempts to resolve a land dispute with the Navajo Nation did not create a fiduciary relationship, he denied a claim for millions of dollars in attorneys' fees.

"In this case, the government did not exercise elaborate control over the land belonging to the Hopi Tribe because it did not control the presentation of the tribe's interests in [court] litigation," Merow wrote. "Instead, the tribe controlled the defense of its rights by bringing suit on its own."

The ruling stems from a decades-old land dispute between the Hopi and Navajo tribes, neighbors in northeastern Arizona. As early as 1934, Congress enacted laws that attempted to settle the reservation boundaries but only exacerbated matters.

In 1974, a settlement act was passed to allow the tribes to bring suit against each other. It was required because the government, as a trustee, could not defend and fight both sides of the case.

But that general trust relationship only goes so far, Merow reasoned. Even though the land in question is held in trust, he said Congress never intended to establish a fiduciary relationship that would give rise to money damages if it is breached, as the Hopi Tribe asserted.

"The [Interior] Secretary in no way exercised any control over plaintiff's defense of its rights," he wrote.

Merow's analysis was based on the Mitchell Supreme Court precedents that are used by courts in breach of trust cases. The Bush administration has said these decisions are not specific enough and the Supreme Court, on December 2, heard oral arguments in two cases that could limit the government's responsibilities to tribes.

If the Hopi Tribe prevailed in the current case, it could have recovered at least $2.8 million for defending its land rights. But under a policy approved by former Secretary Bruce Babbitt on the last full day of the Clinton administration, these legal fees are subject to the discretion of the Department of Interior and are not an "entitlement."

In a similar case decided in 1991, the Court of Claims affirmed the existence of a fiduciary relationship concerning litigation over Indian assets. The court said that the federal government breached its trust to two Arizona tribes for "inadequate" representation that resulted in the loss of the tribes' water rights.

Get the Decision:
Hopi Tribe v. U.S. (December 27, 2002)

Relevant Laws:
Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act of 1974 (Public Law 93-531)

Relevant Links:
Hopi Tribe - http://www.hopi.nsn.us

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Trust duties to Apache Tribe questioned (12/03)
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Review disputes 'costly' Indian trust litigation (10/21)
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Peabody sides with Bush administration on trust (09/04)
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Griles can't explain trust standards (6/27)
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Action due on Navajo trust case (5/20)
Leave no Apache school behind (3/29)
Bush wants Navajo ruling reversed (3/27)
Court rules Navajo Nation owed money (8/14)
Apache Tribe wins trust case appeal (5/17)

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