Law | Trust

Tohono O'odham Nation loses trust suit in Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling today in US v. Tohono O'odham Nation, a trust case.

By a 7-1 vote, the justices ruled that the Tohono O'odham Nation cannot pursue a historical accounting in federal district court at the same time it seeks damages in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the two separate lawsuits are based on "substantially the same operative facts" even though they seek different outcomes.

"Indeed, it appears that the Nation could have filed two identical complaints, save the caption and prayer for relief, without changing either suit in any significant respect," Kennedy wrote.

As a result, Kennedy said the tribe can only pursue its historical accounting case. The tribe can refile in the Court of Claims after the accounting is resolved, he said, provided that the statue of limitations hasn't expired.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion that was joined by Justice Stephen Breyer. Both agreed with the outcome -- the tribe can't pursue both cases at the same time -- but on different grounds than the majority.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the only dissenter. She disagreed that the two lawsuits are similar but said the tribe could be given an opportunity to amend its complaint in the Court of Claims or could seek a stay while it pursues the historical accounting.

Justice Elena Kagan, the newest member of the court, did not participate in any of the proceedings. She served as Solicitor General at the Department of Justice when the case was in the lower courts.

The decision will affect pending litigation, including US v. Eastern Shawnee Tribe. In that case, the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma filed a historical accounting lawsuit and a damages case in the Court of Claims.

Supreme Court Decision:
Syllabus | Opinion [Kennedy] | Concurrence [Sotomayor] | Dissent [Ginsburg]

Oral Argument Transcript:
US v. Tohono O'odham Nation (November 1, 2010)

Federal Circuit Decision:
Tohono O'odham Nation v US (March 16, 2009)

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