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

Alaska Senate President Peter Micciche, left, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, right, meet with reporters in Micciche’s office in the early morning hours of Thursday, May 19, 2022, in Juneau, Alaska, after the Legislature ended its regular session. Micciche, a Republican, and Begich, a Democrat, discussed their working relationship, as well as well as parts of the session they were either pleased with or disappointed with. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)
After House balks at bigger figure, budget OK’d with $3,200 payout per Alaskan

Budget finishes as second-largest in state history by one measure, but Dunleavy could make cuts

Loren Reese, principal at Kenai Alternative High School, gives Oliver Larrow the Mr. Fix It award Wednesday, May 18, 2022, at Kenai Alternative High School in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai Alternative graduates 22, says goodbye to principal

The ceremony included special awards customized for students

Graduates throw their caps into the air at the end of Soldotna High School’s commencement ceremony on Wednesday, May 18, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
‘We never fell down’

Soldotna High School honors more than 100 graduates

Brandi Harbaugh gives a presentation during a joint work session on Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Mill rate decrease, max school funding included in proposed borough budget

The final document is subject to approval by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly

The 2022 graduating class of River City Academy celebrates Tuesday, May 17, 2022, outside of Skyview Middle School just outside of Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)
River City Academy says goodbye to 19 grads, 2 original staff members

Tuesday’s graduation was the last for two staff members who have been with the school since its beginning

Lawmakers from both bodies of the Alaska State Legislature mingle in the halls of the Alaska State Capitol on Wednesday, May 18, 2022, the last day of the legislative session, following the Senate’s passing of the state’s budget bill. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)
Senate agrees to budget, House has until midnight

With hours left in session, House members remain divided

Renewable IPP CEO Jenn Miller presents information about solar power during a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Assembly OKs new tax exemptions for independent power producers

The ordinance was brought forth in response to a proposed solar farm on the Kenai Peninsula

Kenai Central High School graduates throw caps at the end of their commencement ceremony on Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
‘Make a great life’

Kenai Central High School graduates more than 75 students

A black bear gets into a bird feeder in April 2005 at Long Lake, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Fish and Game)
Watch out for bears, moose

Take precautions to keep attractants away from bears and give moose and calves space

Most Read