- By Levi Rickert
WASHINGTON — A federal judge is expected to rule on Monday whether or not Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) should be considered eligible for any of the $8 billion in relief funds earmarked for tribal governments in the CARES Act.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta was nominated to the federal bench by Pres. Obama in July 2014; he was confirmed by the US Senate in Dec. 2014.
Attorneys representing 15 tribes and the U.S. Department of Treasury argued via video on Friday afternoon in front of U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta in a hearing that lasted almost two hours. Mehta announced he will issue his decision on Monday. The Treasury says it will not distribute the much-needed funds to tribes before Tuesday, April 28.
The core argument revolved around the definition of an Indian tribe. The judge pressed the attorneys on definition under the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act, a federal law meant to empower tribes in controlling federal services on their land. ANCs were named as tribes in the CARES Act.
Attorneys representing the tribes argued the intention of the Congress was to have CARES Act funds to be distributed to tribes that provided coronavirus related services and relief efforts to tribal citizens.
Judge Mehta asked several times what services the ANCs were providing to the Alaska villagers.
During the hearing, there was discussion about the formula the Treasury will use for allocating the funds. To register for the funds, tribes or ANCs had to provide the population (number of tribal citizens or shareholders), acreage, number of employees and the total expenditures for the last completed fiscal year.
With Alaska having 44.4 million acres, if the Treasury Department used the formula only, Alaska would be favored to receive up to half of the CARES Act funds.
“I don’t think Congress intended, for example, 50 percent of these funds, $4 billion, to go to the ANCs. I would be stunned if the agency took the position … because ANCs hold a larger percentage of land relative to other Indian tribes,” the judge said.
Judge Mehta was nominated by President Barack Obama in July 2014 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate by a voice vote in December 2014.
In a amicus brief in support of the tribes, the Native American Finance Officers Association, Gila River Indian Community, Penobscot Nation and Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi said the Treasury is not following the CARES Act’s language requiring the funding to pay for tribal government “expenditures” responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Treasury’s failure thus far to focus on and adhere to this statutory language is the source of most of the present controversy, because the argument has become who gets the funds in the first instance rather than the proper method for allocating such funds tailored to the ultimate statutory uses,” NAFOA and the tribes said.
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