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Supreme Court rules against Navajo Nation

The Supreme Court has ruled against the Navajo Nation in its long legal fight with the federal government over the tribe’s claims to payment for coal mined on its lands.

“Today we hold, once again, that the tribe’s claim for compensation fails,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in the court’s opinion released April 6. “This matter should now be regarded as closed.”

The high court’s decision reversed an earlier decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

The case centered on issues stemming from the Peabody Coal Company mining coal on Navajo tribal lands for years, for which it has paid the tribe taxes and mineral royalties.

The tribe alleged over two decades ago that the company worked out a deal with then-Interior Secretary Donald Hodel to persuade tribal officials to accept a lower royalty rate than some officials believed the tribe should be paid. Tribal leaders claimed the government’s action cost them as much as $600 million in lost coal royalties.

But the Court of Federal Claims ruled in 2001 that the tribe wasn’t entitled to damages under the Indian Mineral Lease Act – a decision that was reversed by the appeals court.

The Supreme Court reversed the appellate decision in 2003, saying violations of the act did not entitle the tribe to payment from the federal government.

The tribe then went back to the Court of Federal Claims, arguing that statutes and regulations other than the Mineral Lease Act had been upended. The claims court denied that argument in 2005, but was reversed again by the appeals court.

Navajo lawyer Shenan Atcitty, now a partner with Holland & Knight, worked on the case in the lower courts. After attending the oral argument and reading the decision, she said she had no faith in the Supreme Court.

“Until the president appoints new justices who understand the Constitution’s provisions on Indian tribes, we need to stay out of the Supreme Court. As it stands, they don’t understand the history of Indian law or care about our treaties, so they decide against us nine out of 10 times.”

Several Indian country legal experts believe the Supreme Court’s latest ruling effectively ends the tribe’s claims to a federal settlement.

“Certainly we need to get back together as a nation and see what we can do to right that wrong that was done to the tune of $600 million, said Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. “I don’t believe it’s right. Just because the U.S. Supreme Court said we need to stop, I don’t think so.”