Babbitt v. Youpee Case Brief

Why is the case important?

A federal statute attempted to control the fragmenting of Native American land by stating that small parcels of land could not be devised or descend through intestacy, but would instead escheat to the tribe.

Facts of the case

“A late nineteenth century congressional Indian land program resulted in the extreme fractionation of Indian lands as allottees passed their undivided interests on to multiple heirs. In 1983, Congress adopted the Indian Land Consolidation Act to reduce the fractionated ownership of allotted lands. Section 207 of the Act–the “”escheat”” provision–prohibited the descent of fractional interests that constituted 2 percent or less of the total acreage in an allotted tract and earned less than $100 in the preceding year. The interests described in Section 207 would escheat to the tribe, thereby consolidating the ownership of Indian lands. Section 207 made no provision for the payment of compensation to those who held such fractional interests. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the original version of Section 207 on the ground that it was a taking of private property without just compensation, in violation of the Fifth Amendment. Congress then amended Section 207. which looks back five years instead of one year to determine the income produced from a small interest. The will of William Youpee, an enrolled member of the Sioux and Assiniboine Tribes, devised to the respondents, all of them enrolled tribal members, his several undivided interests in allotted lands on reservations. An administrative law judge found that interests devised to each of the respondents fell within amended Section 207 and should therefore escheat to the relevant tribal governments. The respondents, asserting the unconstitutionality of amended Section 207, appealed the order to the Board of Indian Appeals, which dismissed the appeal. The respondents then filed a suit against the Secretary of the Interior, alleging that amended Section 207 violates the Just Compensation Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The District Court agreed with respondents. The Court of Appeals affirmed.”


When the government severely limits the right of an individual in the descent or devise of his property without offering compensation, will that be a taking in violation of Fifth Amendment?


Yes. Judgment affirmed.
The amended Section: 207 is unconstitutional because it is a taking of property without just compensation.
The provision focuses on the income generated by the land, not on the value of the parcel itself. Even if the income generated may be de minimis, the value of the land may not fit that description.
The provision severely restricts the right of an individual to direct the descent of his property. It only allows a decedent to leave land to a current owner in the same parcel, which drastically reduces possible successors. Even if a successor is found, that party may not have someone to pass it on to, under the Act.
Though the provision allows tribes to establish their own code to govern the disposition of property, none have done so.


“The court affirmed the judgment of the lower court because it determined that § 207 was invalid

  • it effected a taking of property without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment . The court previously had invalidated the statute prior to its amendment. The court determined that the narrow revisions that Congress made to the statute did not warrant a different disposition. The amended 207 did not cure the constitutional deficiency which had been identified in Hodel v Irving.”
    • Case Brief: 1997
    • Petitioner: Babbitt
    • Respondent: Youpee
    • Decided by: Rehnquist Court

    Citation: 519 US 234 (1997)
    Argued: Dec 2, 1996
    Decided: Jan 21, 1997