Ruling due Monday in tribal case over virus relief funding

Flagstaff, Ariz. • A federal judge said he will issue a decision Monday on a request from tribes to temporarily halt the distribution of $8 billion in coronavirus relief funding for tribes.

At least 15 tribes across the country have sued the U.S. Treasury Department, saying the funding should go only to the 574 tribes that have a government-to-government relationship with the U.S., not to Alaska Native corporations.

The Treasury Department has taken the position that the corporations are eligible.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta in Washington, D.C., held a hearing Friday on the tribes' request for a temporary restraining order.

The arguments in court centered on the definition of “Indian Tribe” under the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act, a federal law meant to empower tribes in controlling federal services on their land. Alaska Native corporations were included in the definition in the CARES Act — the $2.2 trillion relief package signed into law in March.

“Of course the government and the tribes have a difference of opinion on what that definition means,” said Riyaz Kanji, an attorney for the tribes. “It will be the court’s role to resolve that difference.”

Federal agencies don't have a consistent interpretation either.

Mehta asked various times whether the Treasury Department reasonably could separate Alaska Native corporations that are delivering services to tribes in response to the coronavirus from those that don't do so.

“It ought to be reserved for ANCs in very limited circumstances,” Mehta said.

Kanji said that approach would ignore what the tribes have argued was Congress' intent — to provide much-needed funding to tribal governments.

Jason Lynch, a Justice Department attorney representing the Treasury Department, said he wasn't sure because the agency hasn't determined how it will distribute the funding. No payments will go out before Tuesday, he said.

Regardless, he saw the issue before Mehta as narrow: eligibility. “That question should be answered and should be the only question,” Lynch said.

The corporations are unique to Alaska and own most Native lands in the state under a 1971 settlement among the U.S., Alaska Natives and the state of Alaska.

The tribes that have sued are in California, Washington state, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Maine, South Dakota and Alaska.

In other tribal developments this week:

• President Donald Trump signed a coronavirus relief package Friday that makes tribal casinos with less than 500 employees eligible to apply for funding through the Payment Protection Program. The casinos previously were excluded.

Tribes, tribal organizations and urban Indian health organizations will benefit from $750 million under the package for COVID-19 testing and laboratory capacity, and to help trace the spread of the illness.

• The Indian Health Service said Thursday it has fully allocated the more than $1 billion the agency received in the CARES Act to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

• The U.S. Senate confirmed the appointment of Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee, a citizen of Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico, as director of the Indian Health Service for four years.