SCOTUS Opinion: Alaska Native Corporations Eligible For Funds From CARES Act

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act allocated $8 billion to “Tribal governments” to pay for coronavirus expenditures. In Yellen v. Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, the question was whether Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) were eligible to receive any of those funds. The term “Tribal government” was defined as the “recognized governing body of an Indian tribe” as defined in the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDA), which in turn referenced the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). The Department of the Treasury had long determined that ANCs were Tribal governments under the ISDA, and the Department of Treasury adopted that view to allow ANCs to receive funds under the CARES Act. A number of Indian tribes sued to exclude the ANCs. The district court ruled for the Department, but the D.C. Circuit reversed, creating a split among the circuits.

The Court, in a 6-3 decision by Justice Sotomayor, held that ANCs are “Indian tribes” under the plain meaning of the ISDA definition, and thus are eligible for funding from the CARES Act, because ANCs had long been deemed eligible under the ANCSA, which the ISDA incorporated. This was so even though ANCs were not explicitly “recognized” by the U.S. Government like regular tribes. Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justices Thomas and Kagan, dissented, arguing that the term “recognized” required formal federal government recognition as the term had been typically used, and thus the ANCs did not qualify for relief.

A link to the opinion is here: