(CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether several Native American tribes can collect 17 years worth of federal funding shortfalls for programs meant to "enhance the progress of Indian people and their communities."
Though the Interior Department is supposed to pay tribes to for activities they carry out in compliance with the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDA), Congress has capped the appropriations since 1994 at a level well below the sum total.
No longer able to support their programs because of the funding shortfalls, the Ramah Navajo Chapter, Oglala Sioux Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni filed a federal class action to recover these contract-support costs (CSCs), which are named for the self-determination contracts between Indian tribes and the United States.
A New Mexico federal judge sided with the government on the basis of the phrase "subject to the availability of appropriations," included in both the ISDA and all self-determination contracts. The court held that this language eliminates the government's obligation to pay contract-support costs unless Congress appropriates funds to pay all costs on every self-determination costs.
But the 10th Circuit reversed in May, finding that the language "only Congressional funding decisions - not discretionary allocation decisions made by an agency - can render an appropriation unavailable."
"We hold that the government remains liable because the annual CSC appropriations were sufficient to cover any individual contract," Judge Carlos Lucero wrote for a three-judge panel.
The full court declined to rehear the case, leading the government to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
On Friday, the high court took up the case without comment.
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