In a 5-4 decision on Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled against the Navajo Nation in a legal battle concerning water access for the tribe. The court found that a 1868 treaty does not impose an obligation on the United States to take affirmative steps to secure water for the Navajo. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing for the majority, cited the text and history of the treaty to conclude that while the agreement reserved necessary water for the Navajo Reservation, it did not require the U.S. to proactively secure water for the tribe. Joining Kavanaugh in the majority were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Amy Coney Barrett.
However, Justice Neil Gorsuch dissented, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson. Gorsuch argued that the majority rejected a request that the Navajo Nation never made, highlighting that the tribe sought the identification of water rights held by the U.S. on their behalf, rather than compelling the government to secure water for them. Gorsuch criticized the ongoing delays and lack of assistance experienced by the Navajo in obtaining information on their water rights. The Navajo Reservation, which spans over 17 million acres and is the largest Native American reservation in the U.S., faces water scarcity, with a significant percentage of households lacking access to water.
The case originated when the Navajo Tribe sued U.S. agencies in 2003, asserting that the government’s actions fell short of its obligations under the 1868 treaty. While a federal district court dismissed the suit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit allowed it to proceed, holding that the U.S. had a duty to take action to secure the water needed for the reservation. The Supreme Court’s decision now overturns the 9th Circuit’s ruling. The issue of water rights is particularly significant for the Navajo Nation, as water scarcity poses challenges to the community’s well-being and development.