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Judge OKs Feds’ Denial of Navajo Funding Boost

(CN) - The Bureau of Indian Affairs timely declined a proposal from the Navajo Nation to increase its funding for judicial operations from $1.3 million in 2013 to $17 million in 2014, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

The Navajo Nation sued the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2014 in D.C. federal court, claiming the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency within the Department of the Interior, violated the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDEAA) when it did not disperse funding to the tribe according to its proposed calendar year 2014 annual funding agreement and within the statutorily mandated 90 days.

Congress enacted the act in 1975 to allow American Indian tribes to enter into "self-determination" contracts that enable them to take control of government programs that benefit their members.

In 2012, the Navajo Nation and then-Secretary Ken Salazar entered into a self-determination contract for the federal government to fund the nation's judicial operations from Jan. 1, 2012 through Dec. 31, 2016. As part of the contract, both parties must negotiate a separate funding agreement each calendar year.

The proposal for the 2014 calendar year was delivered to the Bureau of Indian Affairs on Oct. 4, 2013, during the 2013 governmental shutdown. The proposal requested an increase in funding for judicial operations from $1.3 million in 2013 to $17 million.

The Navajo Nation said it should have received an answer to the proposal by Jan. 2, 2014, but did not, so the proposal should have been deemed approved.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs disagreed, claiming that the federal government was in the midst of a shutdown at the time and the proposal did not make its way to a bureau official until Oct. 17. The agency told the nation it received the proposal on Oct. 17 in a letter sent on Oct. 21, so the 90-day clock did not begin to run until Oct. 17, the federal government claimed.

The bureau says it issued a partial declination of the proposal on Jan. 15, 2014, granting a $1.3 million budget for 2014 in line with what the Navajo Nation received in 2013 but denying a $17 million budget.

U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan ruled Thursday that the Navajo Nation should have attempted to correct the bureau's date of receipt if it thought the date was incorrect.

"[W]hile the nation may have believed that BIA's deadline for acting on the proposal was Jan. 2, 2014, it knew from BIA's Oct. 21, 2013 letter that the agency believed the deadline to be almost two weeks later, on Jan. 15, 2014," Chutkan wrote. "The letter directed the nation to contact BIA if it had any questions about the date of receipt and deadline set forth therein. The letter therefore gave the nation an opportunity to speak, but the nation chose not to avail itself of that opportunity."

Also, the evidence presented showed the bureau would not have changed its reasons for the partial declination before Jan. 15.

"[H]ad the nation notified BIA of its position prior to Jan. 2, 2014, the agency would have issued its partial declination by that date, which would have prevented the nation from being able to argue that the proposal was automatically approved," Chutkan found.

Phone calls placed to the Navajo Nation's communications office were not answered.

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