PHOENIX -- The Tohono O'odham Nation cannot pursue its claims against the federal government over lost funds in two separate courts, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
In a 7-1 ruling, the justices rejected arguments by attorneys for the Southern Arizona tribe that it was entitled to try to get money the government owes it through two separate legal avenues. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the two lawsuits are essentially the "same claim.''
None of this means the tribe will -- or will not -- get money from the federal government. It simply means they will get only one shot at it.
Under federal law, the government manages the nation's lands and holds income derived from that land in trust. That includes income from the sale of natural resources as well as leases.
One lawsuit contends the United States handled $2.1 billion in transactions for the nation between 1972 and 1992 and "has never fulfilled its duty to provide a true and adequate accounting'' of the trust funds. It also alleges "gross mismanagement'' by the federal government. That lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Washington, seeks an accounting and any other relief.
The next day the tribe filed a separate suit in the Court of Federal Claims which hears lawsuits based on claims for compensation from the government. While the issues are the same, this lawsuit sought specific monetary damages.
A judge in the claims court threw the case out. But the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit gave the go-ahead for both proceedings to continue.
Kennedy said the fact that the relief sought in the two courts -- an accounting versus damages -- is immaterial. He said as long as the underlying facts are the same, there is no reason for two separate legal actions.