On April 6, 2009, the Supreme Court decided United States v. Navajo Nation, No. 07-1410.
In a 2003 decision (United States v. Navajo Nation, 537 U.S. 488 (2003)), the Supreme Court rejected the Navajo Nation's claim against the United States under the Indian Tucker Act (28 U.S.C. § 1505) for alleged breach of fiduciary duty in failing to promptly approve a royalty rate increase under a coal lease to which the tribe was a party. The Court held that the Indian Tucker Act does not create substantive rights; it simply waives the government's sovereign immunity from lawsuits. The Court held that the tribe needed a substantive federal statutory basis for its fiduciary duty claim against the United States, and that neither the Indian Mineral Leasing Act of 1938 (IMLA) nor the Indian Mineral Development Act of 1982 (IMDA) provided a basis for the tribe's claim.
After the 2003 decision, the case returned to the Court of Federal Claims, where the tribe relied on different federal statutes to support its fiduciary duty claim. On April 6, 2009, the Supreme Court again rejected the tribe's claim, holding that neither the Navajo-Hopi Rehabilitation Act of 1950 (25 U.S.C. § 635) nor the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (30 U.S.C. § 1300(e)) could be the basis for a claim against the United States for allegedly failing to promptly approve the royalty rate increase. The Court held that the Navajo-Hopi Rehabilitation Act did not support the tribe's claim because the lease in question was not approved under that act; it was negotiated and approved under the IMLA, which the Court held in 2003 did not support the tribe's claim. The Court also held that the Surface Mining Control and Rehabilitation Act did not support the tribe's claim because the act expressly applies only to leases issued after the date of enactment and the lease in question was issued 13 years before the act was enacted. Finally, the Court rejected the tribe's argument that the government's "comprehensive control" over coal on Indian lands creates a common law fiduciary duty in favor of tribes. The Court emphasized that the Indian Tucker Act allows only claims arising under "the Constitution, laws or treaties of the United States, or Executive orders of the President." Only if a federal statute creates a fiduciary duty can a tribe rely on it for a claim under the Indian Tucker Act. Common law claims simply will not do.
Justice Scalia delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.