Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma v. Leavitt

PETITIONER: Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Reservation
RESPONDENT: Michael O. Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al.
LOCATION: Meramec River

DOCKET NO.: 02-1472
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 543 US 631 (2005)
GRANTED: Mar 22, 2004
ARGUED: Nov 09, 2004
DECIDED: Mar 01, 2005

Charles A. Hobbs - for the Seldovia Village Tribe as amicus curiae
Geoffrey D. Strommer - for the Seldovia Village Tribe as amicus curiae
Joseph H. Webster - for the Seldovia Village Tribe as amicus curiae
Lloyd B. Miller - argued the cause for Petitioners
Sri Srinivasan - argued the cause for Respondents

Facts of the case

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDA) allows tribes to administer health care programs previously run by the federal government. Tribes can opt to do this by entering into contracts with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, who is obligated to fund tribe-run health services as if they were still federally run. The Secretary must also fund "contract support costs" associated with carrying out the contract. However, ISDA requires the federal government to fund contract support costs only to the extent money is available. ISDA also does not require the federal government to reduce funding for some tribe programs to make funds available for other tribes. In two separate cases tribes claimed the federal government under-funded contract support costs. The Secretary argued the Omnibus Consolidated and Emergency Appropriations Act made it clear the government lacked the funds to pay the full contract support costs. In one case a federal appellate court ruled that the federal government did not adequately fund contract support costs and that funds were available. In another case a federal appellate court ruled for the federal government.


Did the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDA) require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to pay "contract support costs," even if the government contends funds were not available?

Media for Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma v. Leavitt

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 09, 2004 in Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma v. Leavitt

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 01, 2005 in Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma v. Leavitt

John Paul Stevens:

Justice Breyer has an opinion to announce in two cases involving the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

Stephen G. Breyer:

Two Indian tribes, the Cherokee and the Shoshone-Paiute entered into contracts with the Federal Government.

The government promised to pay for a certain costs called contract-support costs that were related to some health services, and the government just did not pay in full.

The government's point was, well, Congress did not appropriate enough money to pay for all contracts like this that we have made with a whole lot of Indian Tribes, so what we are going to do is take all the available money and we will allocated it, and we will give each tribe their fair share.

Well, the tribes, these particular two, did not like that and they said we want all the money you promised not just some share of it, and they brought a lawsuit.

In fact, two of them, one in the Tenth Circuit and one in the Federal Circuit, and the tribes won the one in the Federal Circuit and they lost the one in the Tenth Circuit.

So, we took cert to iron out that difference.

Now, the tribes' basic argument was they said look at general contracting law.

Now, under general contracting law, the fact the Congress did not appropriate enough money for all the contracts like these, as beside the point.

They appropriated enough money unrestricted for our contract.

It is as if you had a contract with a pencil manufacturer for a million dollars worth of pencils.

The appropriation was $5 million.

That is enough to cover the one.

Now, maybe the government entered into ten for $10 million.

It is enough to cover all ten, that is true, but it covers ours.

And that, they said, is good enough to make the promise binding under ordinary law and the government has not contested that point.

Rather, the government says, these contracts are special.

So, we examined the statute to see what was special about it.

Now the government says, look at that statute; it is just about special services to Indians.

Well, we did look at the statute and it does say the government has to pay contract support costs, and it says nothing about the promise being special.

Indeed it puts the language about what the government has to promise in a section called model contract and it uses the word contract 426 times, but who is counting?

Anyway, that word, "contract", normally refers to "a promise for the breach of which the law gives a remedy".

So, we could not find anything special in that part of the contract.

Now, the contract, in that part of the statute, the statute also uses the word subject to the availability of appropriations.

They are on stronger ground, the government there, but not strong enough because when we looked into the meaning of that term, we found it has a special technical meaning which does not help the government here which is explained in the opinion.

Then the government points to some other language in the statute which says, that government need not "reduce funding for programs, projects, or activities serving a tribe to make funds available to another tribw."

And the government says, well, the Indian health service, almost all of our money goes to such purposes.

Some tribe or other, but it did not say all.

It said almost all.

And the almost is where the problem lies because when you look at that almost you see there is enough money left over to pay these contracts.