On June 22, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Navajo Nation’s breach of trust claim relating to its reserved water rights in the Arizona v. Navajo Nation and Department of the Interior v. Navajo Nation consolidated case. The decision significantly limits the ability of Indian tribes to hold the Federal government accountable for the mismanagement of Indian trust assets—not just reserved water rights. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled in favor of the Navajo Nation, but the Biden Administration petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the decision.
The case focuses on whether the Federal government has an enforceable trust obligation to the Navajo Nation relating to the Nation’s reserved Indian water rights. In a 5 to 4 ruling, the Court ruled that the Nation’s 1868 Treaty does not impose any trust obligations on the Federal government to secure water for the Navajo Nation. The majority ruled that records of the 1868 treaty negotiations between the Nation and the U.S. do not support the Nation’s claim that they understood the treaty to mean that the U.S. must secure water for the Nation.
While the Supreme Court affirmed its 1908 decision in Winters v. United States, the Court also refused to enforce a general trust responsibility requiring the United States to ensure that tribes actually receive water. The Winters decision is a prior Supreme Court decision which recognized that Indian tribes have “reserved” rights to water sufficient to make their reservation homelands viable. The Navajo Nation case is the first time since the 1908 Winters decision that the Supreme Court has decided a breach of trust case involving reserved Indian water rights. The Court rejected outright any enforceable trust obligation based on the Navajo Nation’s 1868 treaty and stated that any obligation on the Federal government to secure the Navajo Nation’s water rights rests exclusively with Congress and Executive Branches of the Federal government.
Justice Neil Gorsuch authored the dissenting opinion and was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Jackson. The dissent focused on the canons of construing Indian treaties and was critical of the majority opinion’s characterization of the Navajo Nation’s argument. Justice Gorsuch agreed with the Nation’s position that the treaties provide enforceable water rights that have not yet been quantified.
This decision casts a shadow on future breach of trust cases and significantly limits the ability of Indian tribes to hold the Federal government responsible for its management of all Indian trust assets, not just reserved water rights. The majority opinion held that the Federal government’s control over Indian trust assets is not, by itself, sufficient to support a breach of trust claim against the Federal government. The opinion is available here.
Instead, as a predicate for such claims, the Supreme Court said Indian tribes must identify a specific statute or regulation which creates “a conventional trust relationship as to a particular [Indian] trust asset.” Because the Navajo Nation could not point to a specific statute or regulation, the Court ruled the Navajo Nation had no enforceable right to require the Federal government “to identify the water rights [the government] holds for them.” In doing so, the Supreme Court has significantly restricted the Winters Doctrine and has severely limited the Federal government’s legal accountability to Indian tribes in all breach of trust claims.
Patterson Earnhart Real Bird & Wilson LLP is dedicated to the representation of American Indian tribes, tribal entities, and individual Indians across the United States. Our mission is to support and advance the sovereignty, self-sufficiency, and self-governance of our tribal clients. To learn more about how we can assist your tribe, contact our Colorado office at (303) 926-5292.