Law | Trust

Supreme Court changes the game for tribal trust litigation

Tribes won't be able to pursue trust management lawsuits in separate courts under the U.S. Supreme Court decision in US v. Tohono O'odham Nation.

More than 90 tribes have filed lawsuits in federal district courts seeking an historical accounting of their trust funds and assets. Some tribes also have filed lawsuits for damages in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

A tribe with both types of lawsuits is now faced with a choice under the Supreme Court's ruling. If the tribe pursues the historical accounting, the Federal Claims will have to be dismissed.

Once the historical accounting is resolved, the tribe can go back to Federal Claims to seek damages, the Supreme Court said. But, as Justice Anthony Kennedy noted in his majority ruling, the tribe will have to deal with statute of limitations issues.

In most situations, the statute of limitations is six years. Historical accounting lawsuits, however, can take much longer to resolve.

For example, more than 30 tribal trust cases have been pending in federal court in Washington, D.C., since December 2006. Many tribes filed lawsuits around that time because Congress failed to extend the statute of limitations on their claims.

So even those tribes who haven't filed a case in the Federal Claims court won't be able to do so until their historical accounting lawsuits are resolved. No bills have been introduced to restart the statute of limitations since it expired at the end of the 109th Congress.

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg raised the possibility that a tribe with both types of lawsuits could amend its Federal Claims complaint to avoid having it dismissed. She was the only dissenter.

Get the Story:
Supreme Court: Tribe can’t get cash through separate lawsuits (Capitol Media Services 4/27)
Tribe Can't Have 2 Suits Over the Same Problem (Courthouse News Service 4/26)

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)

Related Stories:
Tohono O'odham Nation loses trust suit in Supreme Court (4/26)
Turtle Talk Poll: Why no decision in Tohono O'odham case? (4/20)
Supreme Court yet to issue ruling in Tohono O'odham case (4/19)
Recap: Supreme Court arguments in US v. Tohono O'odham Nation (11/2)
Supreme Court to hear Tohono O'odham Nation trust case today (11/1)
Turtle Talk: Supreme Court singling out tribes for damage cases (10/14)
Supreme Court sets November 1 hearing for first Indian law case (09/29)
Supreme Court accepts Tohono O'odham trust law case (4/19)
Tribes working to keep cases away from Supreme Court (3/31)
Federal Circuit ruling in Tohono O'odham trust case (3/16)

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