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D.C. Circuit Upholds Secretary’s Rejection of Tribal Constitution February 17, 2008

Posted by rezjudicata in DC Circuit, Federal Circuits.
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California Valley Miwok Tribe v. United States, No. 06-5203 (D.C. Cir. Feb 15, 2008)

Issue(s): Tribal Government > Organization >> Federal Benefits; Tribal Constitutions > Secretary Approval >> Indian Reorganization Act; Administrative Law > Approval Standards >> Chevron Deference

The Indian Reorganization Act requires the Secretary of the Interior to approve tribal constitutions adopted under the Act. During an internecine power struggle, Burley and a small cadre of supporters adopted a constitution and submitted the document for Secretary approval. The Secretary refused to approve the constitution. Though Burley’s faction represented a small minority of the California Valley Miwok Tribe’s membership, did the Secretary have to approve their constitution?

The D.C. Circuit said no. The IRA provides two avenues to Secretary approval of a tribal constitution. First, the majority of tribal members ratify the constitution at a special election held under federal regulations. Second, the tribe may adopt a constitution without following Secretary or IRA election rules. Burley argued that under the latter path, the Secretary must approve a constitution ratified by internal tribal processes. The Secretary, however, argued that the provision allowed her to reject any constitution that didn’t involve the entire tribal community.

Even though the Secretary’s interpretation did not involve notice-and-comment rulemaking, the Court analyzed the dispute under Chevron. The Court found the second path ambiguous in light of the Secretary’s broad authority to manage Indian affairs. And, promoting tribal political integrity is a “cornerstone” of the Secretary’s trust obligations. Thus, the Secretary reasonably interpreted the second IRA avenue, especially considering Burley’s “antimajoritarian gambit.” As a result, the Secretary permissibly rejected Burley’s constitution.

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