July 07, 2011
On April 26, 2011, the Supreme Court announced its decision in United States v. Tohono O'odham Nation. The Tohono O'odham Nation (Nation) filed suit in Federal District Court against federal government officials who managed the Nation's tribal assets held in trust by the Federal Government. The Nation alleged various violations of fiduciary duty and requested equitable relief. The following day, the Nation filed a suit against the United States in the Court of Federal Claims (CFC). In the CFC suit, the Nation made nearly identical allegations, but requested money damages. 28 U.S.C. §1500 states that the CFC lacks jurisdiction "over an action 'for or in respect to' a claim that is also the subject of an action pending in another court." The question in this case was whether "a common factual basis like the one apparent in the Nation's suits suffices to bar [the CFC from having] jurisdiction under §1500."
In an opinion delivered by Justice Kennedy, the Court held the following by a vote of 7-1: First, if two lawsuits are based on largely the same operative facts, then those two lawsuits are "for or in respect to" the same claim such that CFC jurisdiction is precluded, regardless of the relief sought in each suit. Second, the great degree of overlap between the two lawsuits at issue in this case precludes CFC jurisdiction.
Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito joined Justice Kennedy's opinion. Justice Sotomayor filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, which Justice Breyer joined. Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
To discuss the case, we have Professor Gregory Sisk, who is the Pio Cardinal Laghi Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Professor Sisk filed an amicus brief in support of neither party.