Akiachak Native Community, et al. v. Department of Interior, et al.

Attorney: Heather R. Kendall-Miller, Matthew N. Newman, Richard A. Guest

In 2006, the Akiachak Native Community, the Chilkoot Indian Association, the Chalkyitsik Village Council, and the Tuluksak Native Community IRA, represented by NARF, brought suit in federal district court for the District of Columbia seeking judicial review of 25 C.F.R. Part 151 as it pertains to federally-recognized tribes in Alaska. This federal regulation governs the procedures used by Indian tribes and individuals requesting the Secretary of the Interior to acquire title to land in trust on their behalf. At the time, the regulation barred the acquisition of land in trust in Alaska other than for the Metlakatla Indian Community or its members.

After full briefing, but nearly three years of no action by the federal court, the case was transferred to Judge Rudolph Contreras. Judge Contreras issued an order in April 2012, requesting that the federal government respond to six additional questions in a supplemental brief.

In March 2013, Judge Contreras issued his order granting Plaintiffs’ complete relief on all of their claims – a major victory for Alaska tribes. Briefing on remedies was concluded and a memorandum order was entered in September 2013 denying the State of Alaska’s motion for reconsideration, and severing and vacating Part 1 of 25 C.F.R. 151. Appellants filed their notice of appeal shortly thereafter.

On May 1, 2014, the Department of the Interior published a new proposed rule addressing the acquisition of land into trust in Alaska. Specifically, the proposed rule deleted the provision that excluded trust acquisitions in the State of Alaska. Following the notice of rule-making, the State of Alaska filed a motion to stay the rule-making pending appeal. On June 6, 2014, the court issued an order granting in part and denying in part Alaska’s motion to stay pending appeal. The court found that the state would suffer no harm from allowing the rule-making to proceed but granted the stay in part to prevent the Interior Department from considering specific applications or taking lands into trust in Alaska until resolution of the appeal. On December 18, 2014, the Interior Department published its final rule rescinding the “Alaska Exception”, which became effective on January 22, 2015.  79 Fed. Reg. 76888.

On January 14, 2015, the State of Alaska moved to suspend briefing in this appeal, to “explore a range of policy options on this issue and related tribal issues in Alaska, including potential alternatives to continuing this litigation.”  The Court granted the stay, as well as an additional, 30-day extension of time.  On August 24, 2015, the State of Alaska filed its Appellate brief.  Federal Appellees filed a motion to dismiss on October 7, 2015, on the ground that the Secretary’s rescission of the “Alaska “Exception” moots the case.  On December 3, NARF and the Department of the Interior each filed their response briefs.  Alaska filed its reply brief shortly before the 2015 Christmas holiday and the case was argued on March 4, 2016.

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