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Supreme Court Affirms Alaska Native Corporations are Eligible for COVID-19 Aid

On June 25, The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Federal Government’s long-standing position that Alaska Native Corporations (“ANC[s]”) are “Indian tribes” under the Indian Self Determination Act (“ISDEAA”) and that the governing bodies of ANCs were eligible to access hundreds of millions of dollars of the $8 billion in relief funding allocated to “Tribal governments” under Title V of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act”).   

Established under a 1971 law that sought to address land claims and provide economic benefits to Alaska Natives, ANCs are unique because they are not situated on reservations, like tribes in the lower 48 states. ANCs are for-profit companies that own Native land, including mineral rights, and provide economic benefits and social services to more than 100,000 Alaska Natives, who own stock in ANCs.  Because of these unique circumstances, Congress specifically included ANCs within the definition of “Indian tribe” in ISDEAA, a 1975 law designed to allow U.S. government agencies to enter into contracts with “Indian tribes” to provide critical services to their communities.

In April of 2020, seventeen federally recognized tribes filed three complaints in the District Court of the District of Columbia arguing that the twelve ANCs and 177 Alaska Native village corporations were not entitled to receive any of the $8 billion in funding allocated to “Tribal governments” in the CARES Act. The lawsuits sought to enjoin the U.S. Department of the Treasury from disbursing any of the hundreds of millions of dollars of CARES Act funds allocated to ANCs.  The matters were consolidated, and plaintiffs argued that only sovereign tribal governments were entitled to receive CARES Act relief funds. Plaintiffs’ challenge to ANCs’ eligibility for funding under Title V of the CARES Act—which challenged ANCs’ status as “Indian tribes” under ISDEAA—had the potential to exclude ANCs from federal ISDEAA contracts and programs they had participated in for decades on behalf of the Alaska Native communities they serve.  

In June 2020, the District Court initially granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction. Holland & Hart client Ahtna Inc. and several other ANCs subsequently intervened in the case and successfully persuaded the Court to deny the motion for permanent injunction. The District Court held that ANCs are “Indian tribes” under the CARES Act, which incorporated by reference the ISDEAA definition of “Indian tribe.”  The District Court also noted that the federal government and federal courts had consistently determined over the past 45 years that ANCs qualify as Indian tribes under ISDEAA and other statutes that incorporated the ISDEAA definition. 

However, in September 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the lower court's ruling, which prompted the appeal to the Supreme Court. In reversing the district court, the D.C. Circuit concluded that ANCs were excluded from receiving CARES Act funding because the phrase “recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians” in the ISDEAA definition of “Indian tribe” required a formal, government-to-government relationship that ANCs lack. 

In a 6-3 opinion, reversing the D.C. Circuit, the Supreme Court found that “under the plain meaning of ISDEAA, ANCs are Indian tribes, regardless of whether they are also federally recognized tribes,” adopting the arguments first advanced by Ahtna Inc. in the lower court. The Supreme Court’s decision represents a significant victory for Alaska Native communities served by ANCs by ensuring they receive critically needed relief funds to address the ongoing, devasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also affirms and protects the longstanding eligibility of ANCs to participate in myriad federal contract programs for Native Americans under ISDEA and other statutes.

Ahtna Inc. was represented by Jon Katchen, Michael O’Leary, and Katy Brautigam of Holland & Hart at the District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals. Holland & Hart collaborated with counsel Kirkland & Ellis, which represented all ANC intervenor defendants on the appeal to the Supreme Court.  


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