A rare victory for the tribes, the decision did not break along ideological lines, with conservatives and liberals in both the majority and dissent.
The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act tells the U.S. interior secretary to enter contracts with willing tribes under which they will provide services -- such as education and law enforcement -- that the federal government otherwise would provide.
The act requires the secretary to contract to pay the full amount of contract support costs, subject to the availability of appropriations. But if there is a contractual breach, tribal contractors are entitled to seek money damages under the Contract Disputes Act.
From fiscal 1994 to 2001, a group of tribes led by the Ramah Navajo Chapter in New Mexico contracted to provide services. But during each of those fiscal years, Congress appropriated funds to pay an individual tribal contractor's contract support costs in full, but did not appropriate enough to pay all tribal contractors collectively. Unable to pay everyone in full, the secretary paid the tribes on a uniform, pro-rated basis.
The tribes sued for breach of contract, but a federal judge in New Mexico ruled summarily for the government. A federal appeals court reversed, saying pay up in full.
The U.S. Supreme Court majority opinion, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, cited high court precedent and also said the government must pay up in full, but conceded it is now up to Congress to act and come through with the funding:
"This case is the product of two decisions in some tension: Congress required the secretary to accept every qualifying ISDA contract, promising 'full' funding for all contract support costs, but then appropriated insufficient funds to pay in full each tribal contractor. Responsibility for the resolution of that situation, however, is committed to Congress."
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the dissent, and was joined by three other court members.