Babbitt v. Youpee


DOCKET NO.: 95-1595
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 519 US 234 (1997)
ARGUED: Dec 02, 1996
DECIDED: Jan 21, 1997

James A. Feldman - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the petitioners
Rene A. Martell - Montana, argued the cause for the respondents

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.


Does amended Section 207 of the Indian Land Consolidation Act violate the Fifth Amendment's Just Compensation Clause?

Media for Babbitt v. Youpee

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 02, 1996 in Babbitt v. Youpee

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 95-1595, Bruce Babbitt v. Marvin K. Youpee, Sr.--

Mr. Feldman.

James A. Feldman:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court:

This case concerns the constitutionality of section 2... of the amended version of section 207 of the Indian Land Consolidation Act.

The unamended version of this statute was before this Court almost 10 years ago in Hodel v. Irving, and the Court found it unconstitutional.

Our submission is that the amended statute remedies the flaws that this Court found in the original version of the statute, and the amended statute is therefore constitutional.

Now, the purpose... the statute arose as a response to what this Court has characterized in Hodel as the extraordinary problem of extreme fractionation of Indian trust lands.

Such extreme fractionation when many people combine to own undivided interests in single parcels of land makes productive use of the land very difficult.

If a given parcel has a large number, sometimes in the hundreds of different owners, it's very hard for anyone to take initiative to see to it that the parcel is put to a productive economic use.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Feldman, in this case, under the facts of this case, did the disposition of the land in question further fractionalize it or did one person take each interest as a whole?

I mean, one daughter took some, and a son took all of another, the interest in another tract, and so on?

It was not further fractionalized, was it, in this case?

James A. Feldman:

That's correct.

I mean, actually... in respect to one parcel of land was further fractionated, but that was not a parcel that was subject to a--

Sandra Day O'Connor:


James A. Feldman:

--It was small enough--

Sandra Day O'Connor:


James A. Feldman:

--The decedent--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Does that make a difference, do you think, in our analysis?

James A. Feldman:

--No, I don't think it does.

In Hodel v. Irving what the Court held was that the extreme fractionation is a serious problem, and that--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

But we nevertheless thought it was a taking in that case.

James A. Feldman:


It was a taking because... because such small... because... excuse me.

Let me start again.

The Court held in Hodel that there was a taking because it completely and totally eliminated all rights of descent and devise for the land and, as the Court said twice in its opinion, even when permitting descent or devise would result in a consolidation of the land.

In this case none of the... none of the interest that they had passed effectively through the will would have resulted in such a consolidation of the land and, indeed, in Hodel v. Irving when the Court... in one of the places where the Court made that comment it put a Cf cite specifically to the amended version of the statute.

Now, the amended version of the statute in our view remedies the flaws in the original statue in two ways.

In the first place, in connection with the economic impact of the statute, the amended... the original statute required that land be escheated if in the 1 year prior to the decedent's death it had not earned more than $100, and if the interest involved was less than 2 percent.

The amended version of the--