WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Friday that Alaska Native Societies, for-profit businesses that serve Alaska’s tribal villages, are entitled to a portion of billions of dollars in coronavirus relief allocated by Congress in March 2020 to “tribal governments”.
Alaska Native Societies were formed in 1971 to manage nearly 45 million acres under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Tribal governments in the lower 48 states had challenged the government’s decision to allocate roughly $ 450 million to them under the 2020 law, the CARES Act, arguing that under a 1975 law, corporations do not respond. to the definition of Indian tribes.
Judge Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the majority in the 6-3 decision, rejected this argument. The corporations, she writes, “are Indian tribes, regardless of whether they are federally recognized tribes.”
“The court affirms today what the federal government has maintained for almost half a century: the ANCs are Indian tribes” according to the definitions of the law of 1975.
The court’s decision, Judge Sotomayor wrote, arose out of “the United States’ unique historical relationship with the natives of Alaska.”
“When the United States bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, the natives of Alaska lived in communities widely scattered across Alaska’s 365 million acres,” she said. wrote, adding that there was no effort to isolate them on the reserves. “As a result, Alaskan Native claims to Alaskan lands remained largely unresolved even after Alaska admitted to the union as the 49th state in 1959.”
In 1971, wrote Justice Sotomayor, Congress “extinguished Alaskan Native claims to land and hunting rights” and “authorized the transfer of $ 962.5 million in state and federal funds and from about 44 million acres of land from Alaska to private state-chartered corporations – Alaska Native corporations.
After the 2020 relief bill passed, the Treasury Department announced that Native Alaskan corporations would be eligible for more than $ 500 million in aid, subsequently reduced to about $ 450 million. . The Indian tribes quickly took legal action and a federal judge ruled against them.
But the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned that ruling, saying that a sentence in the 1975 law limited the definition of Indian tribes to groups that the federal government had recognized. The appeals court said that the wording of the 1975 statute, which included corporations in its definition of Indian tribes, required this interpretation because part of its final clause, regarding recognition, seemed to limit the scope of what had preceded him.
Justice Sotomayor disagreed on how to interpret the wording, giving “an example with the same syntax” as the 1975 law.
“One restaurant advertises’ 50% off any meat, vegetable or seafood dish, including ceviche, which is cooked,” “she wrote. “Imagine a customer orders a ceviche, a Peruvian specialty of raw fish marinated in citrus juice. Would she expect it to be cooked? No. Would she expect to pay a heavy price for it? Again, no.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett joined in all of Justice Sotomayor’s opinions, and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. most.
In dissent, Judge Neil M. Gorsuch wrote that corporations did not meet the legal definition because they were not recognized as tribes.
He took the ceviche comparison, calling it “a bit underdone”.
“Maybe the restaurant is using heat to cook their ceviche – many chefs” lightly poach the lobster, shrimp, octopus or mussels before using them in the ceviche, “” he wrote, citing a newspaper article. “Maybe the restaurant heard of ceviche as ‘cooked’ in the sense of ‘fish …’ cooked ‘by marinating it in an acidic vinaigrette’ like lime juice,” he continued. , citing another article.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan joined Justice Gorsuch’s dissent in Yellen v. Confederate tribes of the Chehalis reserve, n ° 20-543.
In a statement, two associations representing indigenous corporations welcomed the decision. “Alaska’s economy is only now starting to recover,” the statement said, “and these funds are needed to help our communities get back on their feet.”