MORTON V. RUIZ, 415 U. S. 199 (1974)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Morton v. Ruiz, 415 U.S. 199 (1974)

Morton v. Ruiz

No. 72-1052

Argued November 5, 1973

Decided February 20, 1974

415 U.S. 199


Respondent Ruiz and his wife, Papago Indians, left their reservation in Arizona in 1940 to live in an Indian community a few miles away, and Ruiz found employment at a nearby mine. During a prolonged strike, Ruiz applied for but was denied general assistance benefits under the Snyder Act by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) because of a provision in the BIA Manual limiting eligibility to Indians living "on reservations" (and in jurisdictions under the BIA in Alaska and Oklahoma). After unsuccessful administrative appeals, respondents instituted this purported class action, claiming, inter alia, entitlement to such general assistance as a matter of statutory interpretation. The District Court's summary judgment for petitioner was reversed by the Court of Appeals on the ground that the Manual's residency limitation was inconsistent with the broad language of the Snyder Act, that Congress intended general assistance benefits to be available to all Indians, including those in respondents' position, and that Congress' subsequent actions in appropriating funds for the BIA general assistance program did not serve to ratify the imposed limitation.


1. Congress did not intend to exclude from the BIA general assistance program these respondents, and their class, who are full-blooded, unassimilated Indians living in an Indian community near their native reservation and who maintain close economic and social ties with that reservation. Pp. 415 U. S. 212-230.

(a) The legislative history of the subcommittee hearings regarding appropriations under the Snyder Act showing that the BIA's usual practice has been to represent to Congress that "on or near" reservations is the equivalent of "on" for purposes of welfare service eligibility, and that successive budget requests were for Indians living "on or near," and not just for those living directly "on," clearly shows that Congress was led to believe that

Page 415 U. S. 200

the programs were being made available to those nonassimilated Indians living near the reservation as well as to those living "on," and a fair reading of such history can lead only to the conclusion that Indians situated near the reservation, such as respondents, were covered by the authorization. Pp. 415 U. S. 213-229.

(b) The fact that Congress made appropriations during the time the "on reservations" limitation appeared in the BIA Manual does not mean that Congress implicitly ratified the BIA policy, where such limitation had not been published in the Federal Register or in the Code of Federal Regulations, and there is nothing in the legislative history to show that the limitation was brought to the appropriation subcommittees' attention, let alone to the entire Congress. But, even assuming that Congress knew of the limitation when making appropriations, there is no reason to assume that it did not equate the "on reservations" language with the "on or near" category that continuously was described as the service area. P. 415 U. S. 230.

2. Assuming, arguendo, that the Secretary rationally could limit the "on or near" appropriation to include only Indians who lived directly "on" the reservation (plus those in Alaska and Oklahoma), this has not been validly accomplished. Pp. 415 U. S. 230-238.

(a) By not publishing its general assistance eligibility requirement in the Federal Register or in the Code of Federal Regulations, the BIA has failed to comply with the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) as to publication of substantive policies. The Secretary's conscious choice not to treat this extremely significant requirement as a legislative type rule, renders it ineffective so far as extinguishing the rights of those otherwise within the class of beneficiaries contemplated by Congress. Pp. 415 U. S. 232-236.

(b) Moreover, the BIA has failed to comply with its own internal procedures, since the "on reservations" limitation is clearly an important substantive policy within the class of directives -- those that "inform the public of privileges and benefits available" and of "eligibility requirements" -- that the BIA Manual declares are among those to be published. P. 415 U. S. 235.

(c) Even assuming the lack of binding effect of the BIA policy, it is too late to argue that the words "on reservations" in the BIA Manual mean something different from "on or near," and therefore are entitled to deference as an administrative interpretation

Page 415 U. S. 201

when in fact, the two have been continuously equated by the BIA to Congress. Pp. 415 U. S. 236-237.

462 F.2d 818, affirmed and remanded.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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