WASHINGTON (CN) — Corporations operating for-profit and providing health care to Alaskan Natives deserve a share of the $8 billion Congress set aside for tribal governments during the coronavirus pandemic, a federal judge in Washington ruled Friday.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta had originally blocked the Treasury Department from sending money out to the Alaska Native Corporations after 12 tribes fired off lawsuits arguing that casino operators and other the private organizations do not operate as tribal governments.
But the Obama appointee reversed course Friday, ruling the ANCs fall in line with the CARES Act definition of tribal governments and are thus eligible for emergency coronavirus funds.
“It stands to reason that Congress, in its effort to distribute emergency funds quickly to Indians under the CARES Act, intended to get those dollars in the hands of the same entities that deliver public services to Indians. In the lower 48 states, those entities are largely Tribal governments in the traditional sense, but in Alaska, those entities include Alaska Native village and regional corporations,” Mehta wrote.
The judge made clear in his 36-page opinion that the decision in no way elevates ANCs to “super-tribal status,” or sets them up to compete with federally recognized tribes for other funding, as the plaintiffs had expressly feared.
“The court’s decision simply recognizes that ANCs are eligible for CARES Act funds, as Congress intended — no more, no less,” the judge wrote.
The decision was not an easy one. The judge had expressed concern on several teleconference hearings over the monthslong delay for both parties, as Native communities hard hit by Covid-19 suffered severe shortages in medical equipment and other critical supplies waiting on the relief funds.
“This case does not present easy, straightforward questions of statutory interpretation,” Mehta wrote. “The court has wrestled with them.”
The tribes, led by the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, had argued that ANCs are not recognized as tribal governments. But the judge concluded that the “recognition” was not a term of art in the CARES Act.
“It would be passing strange to exclude ANCs so obliquely, and the court cannot presume that Congress intended such a result,” Mehta wrote.
The Treasury Department in oral arguments had agreed that ANCs have never satisfied the definition of tribal government, an irony the judge noted.
The government instead contended the private organizations were exempt from satisfying the eligibility clause to collect Covid-19 relief funds.
“That interpretation, the Secretary claims, is faithful to congressional design,” the judge wrote, “because the Confederated Tribes’ alternative reading, if accepted, would render the listing of ANCs in the ISDEAA definition surplusage and defeat Congress’s intent to make ANCs eligible for ISDEAA self-determination contracts.”
Attorneys for both tribes bringing the case decided Friday and the ANCs that intervened in the case did not respond to requests for comment.