Supreme Court issues decision in Jicarilla Apache Nation case

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling today in US v. Jicarilla Apache Nation, a fiduciary trust case.

By a 7-1 vote, the justices ruled that the Jicarilla Apache Nation of New Mexico cannot force the Interior Department to disclose certain trust-related documents. The court said the federal government, as a trustee, can assert attorney-client privilege to protect the documents.

"The trust obligations of the United States to the Indian tribes are established and governed by statute rather than the common law, and in fulfilling its statutory duties, the Government acts not as a private trustee but pursuant to its sovereign interest in the execution of federal law," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority.

"Throughout the history of the Indian trust relationship, we have recognized that the organization and management of the trust is a sovereign function subject to the plenary authority of Congress," the decision continued.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored a concurring opinion that was joined by Justice Stephen Breyer. Both agreed with the outcome but said the majority opinion went too far in stating that the government has the power to withhold all types of documents from tribes.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissent. She said the majority's opinion will lead to further erosion of federal-tribal relations and will weaken the government's trust obligations.

"We have never held that all of the government’s trust responsibilities to Indians must be set forth expressly in a specific statute or regulation," Sotomayor wrote. "To the contrary, where, as here, the statutory framework establishes that the relationship between the government and an Indian tribe 'bears the hallmarks of a conventional fiduciary relationship,' we have consistently looked to general trust principles to flesh out the government’s fiduciary obligations."

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

Supreme Court Decision:
US v. Jicarilla Apache Nation (June 13, 2011)

Oral Argument Transcript:
US v. Jicarilla Apache Nation (April 20, 2011)

Federal Circuit Decision:
In Re United States (December 30, 2009)

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