/ Modified jun 29, 2021 11:27 a.m.

Supreme Court has decided Alaska Native Corporations qualify for CARES Act funding

If the court had sided with federally-recognized tribes, some tribal nations, possibly in Arizona, may have received more funds.

SCOTUS Outlook U.S. Supreme Court building, Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled Congress meant to include Alaska Native Corporations in the round of pandemic relief allotted to tribal governments via the CARES Act.

The dispute came to the high court after lower courts couldn't agree if the corporations qualified. The CARES Act defined "tribal governments" using the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act as "recognized governing body of an Indian tribe." For some "Indian tribe" included the corporations, for others, it didn't. This led to multiple lawsuits and it headed to the Supreme Court..

The Navajo Nation was one of 16 tribal nations listed as plaintiffs on the case. Its president — Jonathan Nez — said the case wasn't about the funds, but about tribal sovereignty.

“We have a strong coalition of tribes that are disappointed in the Supreme Court’s ruling," Nez said in a press release. "The ruling undermines federally-recognized tribes and will have consequences far beyond the allocation of CARES Act dollars, but we as federally-recognized tribes will continue to stand strong and advocate for our tribal nations."

Melissa Tatum, a law professor at the University of Arizona, said the ruling gave future policy a clearer footing for federal aid.

"I don't think it's going to affect tribal sovereignty. What it is going to impact is federal aid to tribes and federal assistance to tribes," said Tatum.

That includes any Arizona tribes that may have qualified for some of the $450 million the U.S. Department of Treasury held aside during the dispute.

Tatum said in a previous interview concerning the case that even if the court sided with the tribes "it [didn't] guarantee that any one tribe [would] get any more money."

Tatum said the opinion is a signal for the district court to follow up with the federal government to disperse the Alaska Native Corporations' share of CARES Act funds.

The ruling was 6-to-3.

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