June 25, 2021

Supreme Court Decides Yellen v. Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation

On June 25, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Yellen v. Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, holding that Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) qualify as “Indian tribes” under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDA) and are therefore eligible to receive relief under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

As the United States braced for the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed the CARES Act. The Act allocated $8 billion to “Tribal governments,” defined as any “recognized governing body of an Indian tribe” as defined in the ISDA. The question in Yellen was whether ANCs qualify as “Indian tribes.” ANCs are state-chartered private business corporations established by the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). The Act transferred federal funds and land to the ANCs but otherwise extinguished the Alaskan Natives’ claims to land in the state (with the exception of existing reservations).

The Treasury Department determined that ANCs meet the definition of “Indian tribe” and set aside $500 million in CARES Act relief. Several federally recognized tribes challenged whether ANCs meet the definition of “Indian tribe.” The District Court held that they do, and the D.C. Circuit reversed.

The Supreme Court held that ANCs meet the definition of “Indian tribe” and thus qualify for CARES Act relief. The Court held that ANCs are included as a matter of ISDA’s plain meaning, in part because they were “recognized as eligible” for special programs and services from the U.S. government through the ANCSA. The Court rejected the arguments that “Indian tribe” is a term of art including only federally recognized tribes, that ANCs had few contracts with the ISDA, and that treating ANCs as Indian tribes would cause an administrative burden. As “the recognized governing body of an Indian tribe” ANCs are eligible for CARES Act funding.

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer, Kavanagh, and Barrett joined in full. Justice Alito joined the opinion in part. Justice Gorsuch filed a dissenting opinion which Justices Thomas and Kagan joined.

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