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Friday, June 21, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Samish Indians Lose Claim for Past Benefits

(CN) - The Supreme Court on Tuesday unraveled a decision that would have let a tribe seek compensation for the benefits to which it would have been entitled during the decades it went unrecognized by the U.S. government.

The Samish Indian Nation descend from a signatory tribe to the 1855 Treat of Point Elliott. In 1958, the U.S. government recognized the tribe's right to sue for damages for land lost under the treaty, but in 1969 the Department of the Interior omitted the Samish Nation from its list of Indian tribes.

After nearly 30 years of legal finagling, the tribe was federally recognized on Oct. 15, 1996.

It sued the United States in 2002, claiming the government owed it for the federal benefits it would have received from 1969 to 1996. A federal judge dismissed the complaint as untimely, and the Federal Circuit ruled that it lacked jurisdiction. However, it said the past benefits did not accrue until Nov. 1, 1996 and remanded the case to the Court of Federal Claims.

The tribe argued that the "underlying legal framework" of each federal program, service and benefit provides a "money-mandating basis for jurisdiction."

The claims court rejected this argument, saying none of the programs "'can fairly be interpreted as mandating compensation by the Federal Government for the damages sustained,'" the jurisdictional bar set by the Supreme Court.

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims said it lacked jurisdiction over most of the Washington tribe's claims and dismissed the remaining claims as moot.

"It is readily apparent that the federal government's failure to treat plaintiff as a recognized Indian tribe between 1969 and 1996 deprived plaintiff of many of the federal benefits enjoyed by other federally recognized Indian tribes during that time period," Judge Margaret Sweeney wrote.

"However, the relief plaintiff seeks is not available in the Court of Federal Claims. Indeed, if plaintiff is lagging behind some of its sister tribes as a result of the deprivation of federal benefits, its avenue for relief is with Congress."

On appeal to the Federal Circuit, however, a three-judge panel revived the tribe's claims under the State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act, also known as the revenue-sharing act.

The Supreme Court vacated this finding in a summary order Tuesday. Citing the 1950 decision United States v. Munsingwear, the court directed the Federal Circuit to dismiss the claim as moot on remand.

The moot finding presumably derives from the fact that the tribe notified the claims court that it would dismiss its revenue-sharing act (RSA) claims without prejudice.

In its reply brief to the high court, the government balked at this maneuver.

"Now, after the United States filed its certiorari peti­tion-without prior notice to the United States and without seeking leave from the Court of Federal Claims (CFC) - the tribe filed a notice in the CFC purporting to dismiss 'without prejudice' its claim for money dam­ages under the RSA pursuant to CFC Rule 41(a)(1)," it wrote. "Although the tribe does not say why it sought unilaterally to dismiss its RSA claim after ten years of litigation and its two successful ap­peals to the Federal Circuit, including the most recent appeal that reinstated the RSA claim, the only apparent reason for the tribe's extraordinary action is to attempt to prevent this court from reviewing and (perhaps summarily) reversing the Federal Circuit's ruling. In­deed, on the basis of its unilateral action, the tribe now contends that this case is moot with respect to its RSA claim and urges this court simply to deny review on that basis. In the alternative, however, the tribe acknowledges that because it is responsible for the as­serted mootness, it would be 'appropriate' for the court to vacate the judgment of the court of appeals 'with re­spect to matters relating to the [RSA] claim' and 're­mand the matter for dismissal with prejudice.'"

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