In this June 20, 2019, file photo, the Supreme Court is seen in Washington as a storm rolls in. The Supreme Court seems inclined to say that hundreds of millions of dollars in coronavirus relief money tied up by a court case should benefit Alaska Natives, rather than be spread more broadly among Native American tribes.The justices were hearing arguments April 19, 2021, in a case involving the massive pandemic relief package passed last year and signed into law by then-President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

In this June 20, 2019, file photo, the Supreme Court is seen in Washington as a storm rolls in. The Supreme Court seems inclined to say that hundreds of millions of dollars in coronavirus relief money tied up by a court case should benefit Alaska Natives, rather than be spread more broadly among Native American tribes.The justices were hearing arguments April 19, 2021, in a case involving the massive pandemic relief package passed last year and signed into law by then-President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Court seems ready to send virus funds to Alaska Natives

The federal government set aside more than $530 million for the so-called ANCs.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court seemed inclined Monday to say that hundreds of millions of dollars in coronavirus relief money tied up in court should benefit Alaska Natives rather than be spread more broadly among Native American tribes around the U.S.

The justices heard arguments in a case involving the massive pandemic relief package passed last year and signed into law by then-President Donald Trump. The $2.2 trillion legislation earmarked $8 billion for “Tribal governments” to cover expenses related to the pandemic.

The question for the court is whether Alaska Native corporations, which are for-profit companies that provide benefits and social services to more than 100,000 Alaska Natives, count as “Indian tribes.”

The federal government set aside more than $530 million for the so-called ANCs, but the funds have been tied up as a result of lawsuits by Native American tribes. If they win, the disputed funds would be distributed among 574 federally recognized tribes both in and outside Alaska.

The case is important not only because of the amount of money it involves but also because Native Americans including Alaska Natives have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. They are more than three times as likely as whites to be hospitalized from COVID-19 and almost two and a half times as likely to die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Monday, a majority of the justices suggested that Congress could have chosen clearer language or perhaps used better grammar when describing who should get the money. But both conservative and liberal justices also suggested that the law was intended to cover the corporations.

“I’ve never heard of a canon that says you have to use perfect grammar, or even that you have to use good grammar when you are a member of Congress,” Justice Stephen Breyer said at one point during about an hour and a half of arguments the justices heard by phone because of the pandemic.

Part of the issue for the justices is that Alaska Native corporations are unique. Created under a 1971 law signed by President Richard Nixon, the for-profit corporations own land and run oil, gas, mining and other enterprises. Alaska Natives own shares in the corporations, and the corporations provide a range of services from health care and elder care to educational support and housing assistance.

Arguing for the federal government, Matthew Guarnieri told the justices that the ANCs have consistently been treated as “Indian tribes.” Treating them differently would not only affect funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act but also leave tens of thousands of Alaska Natives excluded from scores of special federal Indian law programs, the ANCs have said.

Alaska has more than 200 federally recognized tribes, but many are “small and remote and not well-suited to distribute certain benefits,” ANCs argue. Moreover, many Alaska Natives are not affiliated with recognized tribes, the ANCs say, arguing they are the “principal purveyors of benefits and services” to over 100,000 Alaska Natives.

After the CARES Act was passed, three groups of tribes sued to prevent payments to ANCs. They argue that under the language of the law, only federally recognized tribes qualify for the aid and ANCs do not because they are not sovereign governments as tribes are. A trial court ultimately disagreed, but a unanimous panel of the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the decision.

Both the Trump and Biden administrations agreed that the CARES Act makes ANCs eligible for the relief money.

More in News

Lydia Jacoby of the United States, sees the results after winning the final of the women’s 100-meter breaststroke at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo / Martin Meissner)
Seward buzzing over Jacoby’s victory

SEWARD — An Olympic buzz permeates an Alaska coastal community thousands of… Continue reading

FILE - A sign advises shoppers to wear masks outside of a store Monday, July 19, 2021, in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. Infections are climbing across the U.S. and mask mandates and other COVID-19 prevention measures are making a comeback in some places as health officials issue increasingly dire warnings about the highly contagious delta variant. But in a possible sign that the warnings are getting through to more Americans, vaccination rates are creeping up again, offering hope that the nation could yet break free of the coronavirus if people who have been reluctant to receive the shot are finally inoculated. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
CDC changes course on indoor masks in some parts of the US

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed course Tuesday on some… Continue reading

Alaska State Troopers and local law enforcement agencies in Ketchikan arrested a woman on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021 in possession of more than a quarter of a million dollars worth of drugs at the Ketchikan International Airport. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Semi-truck crash marks fourth major car accident in 10 days

There was another vehicle accident on the Sterling Highway this morning, according… Continue reading

Resurrection Bay is seen from Seward, Alaska on Saturday, July 24, 2021. (Camille Botello / Peninsula Clarion)
Seward approves construction of animal shelter

The Seward City Council approved up to $1,930,500 for the construction of… Continue reading

Alaska Senate President Peter Micciche speaks to reporters after a Senate floor session on the opening day of the second special legislative session on Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in Juneau, Alaska. Gov. Mike Dunleavy called the special session to address the budget. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)
Per diems add up for lawmakers

State lawmakers could make more than $85,000 in per diem payments and… Continue reading

Daniel Balserak and Luke Konson fish for salmon in Alaska. The pair has been traveling the country and catching every official state fish for the past 11 months. (Photo provided)
A gap year like no other

High school graduates defer college enrollment to fish in every state

Hikers look at the Harding Icefield in August 2015 in Kenai Fjords National Park, just outside of Seward, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)
Hiker rescued from Harding Icefield Trail

A hiker was airlifted off of the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai… Continue reading

COVID-19 cases are rising and health officials say new variants are spurring the increase, even among the vaccinated. But health officials note the majority of hospitalizations and deaths are occurring in unvaccinated people. (Michael Lockett / Juneau Empire file)
COVID-19 surge continues

‘They’re getting sicker this time around’

Alaska State Troopers logo.
Weekend car accident leaves 1 dead

Alaska State Troopers reported another car accident fatality over the weekend, marking… Continue reading

Most Read