The Jicarilla Apache Nation's reservation in New Mexico contains natural resources that are developed under laws administered by the U.S. Interior Department. The proceeds from the resources are held by the United States in trust for the tribe.
However, the Jicarilla filed a breach-of-trust action in the Court of Federal Claims in Washington, asking for monetary damages for the government's alleged mismanagement of the tribe's trust funds in violation of U.S. law.
The government agreed to release some of the documents demanded by the tribe during the discovery phase of the suit, but refused to release others, saying they were protected in part by attorney-client privilege.
The court granted the Jicarilla motion to force production of the documents in part, saying the department communications relating to the management of trust funds fall within a "fiduciary exception" -- or trust obligation exception -- to the attorney-client privilege. A U.S. appeals court in Washington agreed.
But the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito.
"The fiduciary exception to the attorney-client privilege does not apply to the general trust relationship between the United States and the Indian tribes," Alito said.
The appeals court "analogized the government to a private trustee," he said. "While the United States' responsibilities with respect to the management of tribal funds bear some resemblance to those of a private trustee, this analogy cannot be taken too far. The government's trust obligations to the tribes are established and governed by statute, not the common law ... The government ... does not have the same common-law disclosure obligations as a private trustee."
Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, and Justice Elena Kagan, until this term U.S. solicitor general, did not participate in the case, producing the 7-1 result.