On March 29, 1985, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) issued a final rule
amending the definition of "need" in the regulations used to calculate payment rates under the Indian General Assistance Program.
Plaintiffs, who are indigent Indian General Assistance recipients residing in Idaho and Nevada, sued to enjoin the enforcement of the new regulation on the grounds that it violates the Snyder Act of 1921
and the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment's due process clause. On June 12, 1985, the Court issued a temporary restraining order enjoining defendants from enforcing the new regulation and requiring them to make General Assistance payments based on the standard previously in force.
The parties have now filed cross-motions for summary judgment and the Court has heard oral argument. After carefully considering the submissions of the parties, the Court concludes that the government's motion must be granted and this action dismissed.
The material facts are not in dispute. The General Assistance program is a federally funded public assistance program of last resort that pays benefits to indigent Indians living on or near reservations who are ineligible for other forms of public assistance provided by states in which they reside.
The program has been in place for some forty years in states that do not have their own special Indian assistance programs.
Under regulations that have remained essentially unchanged since the inception of the General Assistance program, the BIA has set the "need" level for General Assistance recipients at the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) subsistence "need" level established by the state in which the General Assistance recipient resides. Thus, each General Assistance recipient has received benefits at 100 percent of his state's calculated subsistence "need" level.
The new regulation under challenge here modifies this direct tie between AFDC "need" levels and General Assistance "need" levels. Under the new regulation, in states that employ the so-called "rateable reduction" and therefore do not actually pay AFDC benefits at 100 percent of need, the General Assistance "need" level is based not on the state's AFDC need level, but on the actual payment rate. Consequently, for Indians such as plaintiffs, who live in states that employ the rateable reduction and therefore do not provide public assistance payments at the full, state-established subsistence level, the effect of the new regulation will be to reduce their benefits significantly.
On the other hand, Indians residing in states that actually pay benefits at 100 percent of the state calculated AFDC need level will continue to receive General Assistance payments based on 100 percent of the need level. The crux of the plaintiffs' challenge to the new regulation is that this resulting disparity in payment rates for Indians living in different states is irrational and violates both the equitable distribution requirement of the Snyder Act, the relevant organic statute, and the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment's due process clause.
In evaluating plaintiffs' Snyder Act claims, it is appropriate to begin with the statutory language. As the Supreme Court has recognized, the Snyder Act is nothing more than a generally worded appropriations authorization statute that vests broad discretion in the Secretary of the Interior to administer Indian assistance programs funded by Congress. See Morton v. Ruiz, 415 U.S. 199, 205-12, 39 L. Ed. 2d 270, 94 S. Ct. 1055 (1974). The relevant language of this brief
statute provides only that
The Bureau of Indian Affairs, under the supervision of the Secretary of the Interior, shall direct, supervise, and expend such moneys as Congress may from time to time appropriate, for the benefit, care, and assistance of the Indians throughout the United States for the following purposes: