Court Battles

Supreme Court backs Alaska Natives in clash over COVID-19 relief funds

Greg Nash

The Supreme Court on Friday ruled that corporations set up by Congress for Alaskan Natives are eligible for a portion of the $8 billion in coronavirus relief funds that lawmakers set aside for tribal governments.

The case hinged on whether Alaska Native corporations (ANCs), which Congress established five decades ago to manage land and settlement issues, qualified as “Indian tribes” under federal law.   

In a 6-3 decision penned by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the majority ruled that ANCs met the definition under a 1975 statute called the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDA).

“The Court today affirms what the Federal Government has maintained for almost half a century: ANCs are Indian tribes under ISDA,” wrote Sotomayor, one of the court’s more liberal members.

In turn, the majority ruled, ANCs are entitled to receive roughly $500 million earmarked to them under the CARES Act, the first major coronavirus relief bill that Congress passed in March 2020. 

The court’s voting breakdown marked a departure from the familiar ideological divisions. Three of the court’s more conservative members joined Sotomayor’s opinion in its entirety, and Justice Samuel Alito, one of the court’s staunchest conservatives, signed on to most of it. Justice Stephen Breyer, a member of the court’s liberal wing, also joined the majority.

The ruling effectively rejected arguments from tribal governments in the lower 48 states that the ANCs should be excluded from CARES Act relief.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote a dissent that was joined by fellow conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, as well as Justice Elena Kagan, one of the court’s more liberal members.

The decision was hailed by the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association (ANVCA), which along with the U.S. Treasury Department argued on behalf of the ANCs in the case.

“We are pleased to see the court affirm Alaska Native corporations’ eligibility for CARES Act funds to help our people and communities recover from the devastating effects of COVID-19,” the ANVCA said in a joint statement with an another ANC association. “Alaska’s economy is only now starting to recover, and these funds are needed to help our communities get back on their feet.”

Tags Alaska Natives Clarence Thomas Elena Kagan Neil Gorsuch Samuel Alito Sonia Sotomayor Stephen Breyer

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