In a 5-4 ruling on Monday 18 June 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Navajo Indians and several other Native American tribes were to be fully reimbursed for millions of dollars they spent on providing public services.

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 authorises the Secretary of the Interior to enter into contracts with Native American tribes under which they would sub-contract from the federal government public services such as police, schools, fire prevention, hospitals, infrastructure works, environmental works and agricultural assistance.

From 1994, the government changed the way it paid tribes for the services provided so that it would pay a collective lump sum onto which a payment ‘ceiling’ was imposed.  This capped the amount of money allotted to the tribes for their services rather than paying each tribal contractor in full. Between 1994 and 2001, the federal payments only covered between 77% and 92% of the tribes’ aggregate contract support costs, depriving the tribes of millions of dollars.

The US Supreme Court found this to be unacceptable. Justice Sonya Sotomayor, delivering the Court’s opinion, wrote “Consistent with longstanding principles of government contracting law, we hold that the government must pay each tribe’s contract support costs in full“.

Jonathan Cohn of the Washington-based law firm Sidley Austin, who jointly represented the tribes, told The Guardian that the judgment was a “big victory for the tribes“. He said it was rare for the court to side with the tribes.

The government was trying to treat tribal contractors differently from all other contractors. If you were talking about a defence contractor, I don’t think this case would have reached the Supreme Court – the government would have paid up long ago.”

Roger Martinez, president of the Ramah Navajo Chapter in New Mexicosaid, “This gets us back to the principle that the government must pay us what we are entitled to“.

The US Supreme Court’s opinion can be found here.