The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday in a 6-3 ruling held that Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) are eligible to receive some of the $8 billion made available to Native American tribes by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
ANCs are companies created by Congress in 1971 and owned by Alaska Natives. In interpreting the CARES Act, the Treasury Department determined that the ANCs are eligible to receive funds that the Act allocates to tribal governments. Several other Native American tribes contested that determination and filed a lawsuit. The federal district court found in favor of the Treasury Department and the ANCs, but the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed.
Justice Sotomayor wrote the opinion of the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer, Kavanaugh, and Barrett, and joined in parts by Justice Alito.
The CARES Act defines a tribal government as the recognized governing body of an Indian tribe as defined by the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDA). The ISDA further defines Indian Tribe as “any Indian tribe, band, nation, or other organized group or community, including any Alaska Native village or regional or village corporation as defined in or established pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act [ANCSA].” The ANCs argued that they fall under the plain meaning of Indian Tribe in the ISDA, and Sotomayor agreed. They were established pursuant to the ANCSA, and therefore recognized as eligible for the Act’s benefits. This makes them also eligible for the benefits under the CARES Act.
Justice Gorsuch wrote a dissent, joined by Justices Thomas and Kagan. Gorsuch argued that the final clause, or the “recognition” clause of the ISDA, applies to ANCs, but the ANCs “are not ‘recognized’ as tribes eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians.” The recognition clause requires “formal recognition between the federal government and a tribal government” in order to trigger the eligibility for benefits under the CARES Act, and, according to Gorsuch, “there’s just no way” to include the ANCs under Tribal governments for purposes of the CARES Act.
Because of the ruling, the ANCs will be eligible for about $500 million in COVID-19 relief money from the CARES Act that was earmarked for Native American tribes.