Editorial: More bad news from the Supreme Court
"It’s only fitting that the latest bad U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding Indian law would begin with an awkward and offensive phrase, written by Justice Antonin Scalia to describe the plaintiff. “For over 15 years, the Indian Tribe known as the Navajo Nation has been pursuing a claim. …,” he wrote in the opinion.

Identifying the Navajo people and their government as a sovereign Indian nation would have ruined the tone and intent of the decision, which was to deny the Navajos’ claim for monetary damages, squash any remaining faith in finding legal relief, and perhaps cast doubt on the federal-tribal trust relationship. In its second judgment in six years the court ruled April 6 against the Navajo Nation, saying it could not sue the federal government for breach of trust in the 1984 renegotiation of coal royalties with the Peabody Coal Company, which has mined coal from tribal lands for decades.

The decision in the Navajo trust litigation represents the second time this same dispute has come to the Supreme Court, despite the court’s apparent indifference toward Indian issues. That in itself is noteworthy, as the Supreme Court allows appeals in fewer than five percent of all cases presented to it. A lower federal court ruled in favor of the Navajo Nation, perhaps because it was appalled by the conduct of the Interior Department. The facts in this case included evidence of collusion between Peabody Coal and then-Interior Secretary Donald Hodel to limit the royalty rate paid to the Navajo Nation for its coal reserves, resulting in a “negotiated” lease price they knew was considerably lower than what the tribe had originally proposed and was too close to getting. The Navajo Nation considered the trustee responsibility on the part of the United States breached.

But Justice Scalia focused on the governing law of Navajo I, the Indian Minerals Leasing Act of 1938, the court distinguished between a fiduciary obligation on the part of the federal government and a “limited approval role” under the IMLA. In the background, Scalia reiterates the standard set in Navajo I, which stated the tribe “must identify a substantive source of law that establishes specific fiduciary or other duties, and allege that the Government has failed faithfully to perform those duties.” The court decided that unless the trust responsibility is specified in statute or law, then it doesn’t exist as an obligation on the federal government, leading it to say that “neither the Government’s ‘control’ over coal nor common-law trust principles matter.”"

Get the Story:
Editorial: Supremely bad trend continues (Indian Country Today 4/13)

Navajo Nation v. US:
Syllabus | Opinion [Scalia] | Concurrence [Souter]

Carcieri v. Salazar:
Syllabus | Opinion [Thomas] | Concurrence [Breyer] | Dissent [Stevens] | Concurrence/Dissent [Souter]

Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs:
Syllabus | Opinion [Alito]

Related Stories:
Another loss for tribal interests at Supreme Court (4/7)
Turtle Talk: Commentary on Navajo Nation ruling (4/7)
Supreme Court rejects Navajo Nation trust lawsuit (4/6)
Land-into-trust worries aired at House hearing (4/2)
Supreme Court rules in Native Hawaiian lands case (3/31)
NCAI opens winter session in Washington DC (3/4)
Supreme Court rules in big land-into-trust case (2/25)