United States v. Jicarilla Apache Nation

PETITIONER:United States
RESPONDENT:Jicarilla Apache Nation
LOCATION: Jicarilla Apache Tribe

DOCKET NO.: 10-382
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

CITATION: 564 US (2011)
GRANTED: Jan 07, 2011
ARGUED: Apr 20, 2011
DECIDED: Jun 13, 2011

Pratik A. Shah – Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the petitioner
Steven D. Gordon – For the respondent

Facts of the case

In 2002, the Jicarilla Apache Nation of New Mexico sued the federal government for allegedly mismanaging financial interests and funds, which are held in trust for the tribe’s benefit. The tribe is seeking access to attorney-client communications about the trust operation. The Court of Federal Claims denied a petition by the United States to vacate its orders requiring the government to produce the documents.


Does the attorney-client privilege entitle the United States to withhold from an Indian tribe confidential communications between the government and government attorneys implicating the administration of statutes pertaining to property held in trust for the tribe?

Media for United States v. Jicarilla Apache Nation

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 20, 2011 in United States v. Jicarilla Apache Nation

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 13, 2011 in United States v. Jicarilla Apache Nation

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

The Jicarilla Apache Nation filed a breach of trust action in the Court of Federal Claims, seeking monetary damages for the Government’s alleged mismanagement of the Tribe’s trust funds.

During discovery, the Tribe moved to compel production of certain documents and the Government asserted the attorney-client privilege.

Court of Federal Claims granted the motion impart holding that communications relating to the management of trust funds fall within a fiduciary exception to the attorney-client privilege.

Under that exception, which courts have applied to common-law trusts, a trustee who obtains legal advice related to trust administration is precluded from asserting the attorney-client privilege against trust beneficiaries.

The Government petitioned the Court of Appeals for a writ of mandamus which the Court denied.

The Court of Appeals held that the trust relationship between the United States and the Indian tribes is sufficiently similar to a private trust to justify applying the fiduciary exception.

We disagree.

The analogy between the Government and a private trustee cannot be taken too far.

The Government’s trust obligations to the Tribes are governed by a statute, not the common law.

In fulfilling in statutory duties, the Government acts not as a private trustee but pursuant to its sovereign interest in the execution of federal law.

The two criteria, justifying the fiduciary exception, are therefore absent in the context of this trust.

Because its sovereign interest is distinct from the beneficiaries’ private interest, the Government seeks legal advice in its own rather than a fiduciary capacity.

In this case, the relevant statute delineates specific disclosure obligations of the Government to the Tribe.

Common law does not override the specific trust-creating statute and regulations that apply here.

We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Ginsburg has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in which Justice Breyer has joined.

Justice Sotomayor has filed a dissenting opinion.

Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.