FROM THE ARCHIVE

Supreme Court upholds common law trust claim

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WEDNESDAY, MARCH 5, 2003

A deeply divided Supreme Court on Tuesday cleared the way for an Arizona tribe to recover money damages for the federal government's failure to meet its trust responsibilities.

Rejecting arguments proffered by the Bush administration, the court upheld the White Mountain Apache Tribe's claim. In a 5-4 decision split along ideological lines, Justice David Souter concluded it was "fair to infer" that a 1960 law setting aside an historic fort for the tribe -- but also for use by the Department of Interior -- created a fiduciary relationship governed by common law trust standards.

By allowing the property to fall into waste, the government is liable for breach of trust even though the statute did not explicitly define those standards, the court ruled.

"While it is true that the 1960 Act does not . . . expressly subject the government to duties of management and conservation, the fact that the property occupied by the United States is expressly subject to a trust supports a fair inference that an obligation to preserve the property improvements was incumbent on the United States as trustee," Souter wrote. "This is so because elementary trust law, after all, confirms the commonsense assumption that a fiduciary actually administering trust property may not allow it to fall into ruin on his watch."

In Washington, D.C., to lobby government officials and members of Congress on housing, land and other issues, chairman Dallas Massey was pleased with the development, which affirmed a 2-1 lower court ruling. He said it was a victory for all of Indian Country.

"Morally and legally we thought we were right," he said in a statement. "The prayers of our people and of Indian people across this land have been answered in the court's opinion which reaffirms this nation's long standing fiduciary relationship with Indian tribes."

Robert Brauchli, a Tucson-based attorney for the tribe, said he was "pleasantly" surprised. He praised tribal leaders, who are still dealing with the effects of last year's devastating fire that destroyed more than half of the reservation, for sticking with the case, filed in 1999.

"They should be commended," he said in an interview." "They had very limited resources. They relied on traditional prayers and put a lot of faith in this."

The case returns to the federal court of claims for a determination on how much the tribe is owed for about 30 dilapidated school and other buildings on Fort Apache, a 7,500-acre property the tribe is restoring. Brauchli said it would cost about $9 million to repair the property and encouraged the Bush administration to resolve the dispute once and for all.

"I hope that the trustee will be reasonable and engage in settlement discussions," he said.

The fort, which dates to the late 1800s, includes the Theodore Roosevelt School, one of the worst-performing in the Bureau of Indian Affairs system. The students' low achievement levels are reflected in the poor condition of the buildings, which have been plagued by basketball-sized holes in roofs and other structural deficiencies.

The government could raise statute of limitation and other defenses to reduce liability. Government attorneys, in earlier court filings, suggested they would argue the tribe filed the claim too late. Interior officials had no immediate comment yesterday.

Joining Souter in the majority opinion were Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. The justices are considered the court's liberal-moderate bloc, with O'Connor often providing the critical vote in Indian law cases.

Ginsburg wrote separately to explain why she ruled for the Apache Tribe but against the Navajo Nation in a related case also decided yesterday. "To the extent that the Government allowed trust property 'to fall into ruin,' I further agree, a damages remedy is fairly inferable," she wrote.

Disagreeing was Justice Clarence Thomas, who accused the court of opening up the federal government to more claims. He was joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy, considered stalwart conservatives.

"The court today fashions a new test to determine whether Congress has conferred a substantive right enforceable against the United States in a suit for money damages," Thomas wrote. "In doing so, the court radically alters the relevant inquiry from one focused on the actual fiduciary duties created by statute or regulation to one divining fiduciary duties out of the use of the word 'trust' and notions of factual control."

Statement: Chairman Dallas Massey | Excerpts: U.S. v. White Mountain Apache Tribe

Get the Decision:
Syllabus | Opinion [Souter] | Concurrence [Ginsburg] | Dissent [Thomas]

Relevant Documents:
Supreme Court Docket Sheet: No. 01-1067 | Petition: United States | Response: United States | Merits Brief: United States | Reply Brief: United States

Decision Below:
White Mountain Apache Tribe v. US, No 00-5044 (Fed Cir. May 16, 2001)

Related Decisions:
Mitchell I: UNITED STATES v. MITCHELL, 445 U.S. 535 (1980)
Mitchell II: UNITED STATES v. MITCHELL, 463 U.S. 206 (1983)

Relevant Laws:
Lands Held in Trust for the White Mountain Apache Tribe (Pub. L. 86-392, 1960)

Relevant Links:
U.S. Supreme Court - http://www.supremecourtus.gov
White Mountain Apache Tribe - http://www.wmat.nsn.us

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