Cass County v. Leech Lake Band of Chippewa Indians

RESPONDENT: Leech Lake Band of Chippewa Indians
LOCATION: United States Department of State

DOCKET NO.: 97-174
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 524 US 103 (1998)
ARGUED: Feb 24, 1998
DECIDED: Jun 08, 1998

Barbara B. McDowell - Argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of court, supporting the respondent
Earl Edwin Maus - Walker, Minnesota, argued the cause for the petitioners
James M. Schoessler - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

In 1993, Cass County, Minnesota began assessing ad valorem taxes on 21 parcels of reservation land that had been alienated from tribal control under the Nelson Act and later reacquired by the Leech Lake Band of Chippewa, a federally recognized Indian tribe. In 1995, the Band filed suit, seeking a declaratory judgment that Cass County could not tax the 21 parcels. The District Court held that all of the land that had been alienated from tribal ownership under the Nelson Act was taxable. Affirming in part, the Court of Appeals held that 13 parcels that had been allotted to individual Indians could be taxed so long as they had been patented after passage of the Burke Act proviso, because the explicit mention of "taxation" in the proviso expressed "unmistakably clear" intent. Reversing in part, the court held that the eight parcels sold as pine lands or homestead land could not be taxed because those sections did not incorporate the General Allotment Act or include any mention of an intent to tax lands distributed under them which might become reacquired by the Band.


May state and local governments tax reservation land that was made alienable by Congress and sold to non-Indians by the Federal Government but was later repurchased by a tribe?

Media for Cass County v. Leech Lake Band of Chippewa Indians

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 24, 1998 in Cass County v. Leech Lake Band of Chippewa Indians

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 97-174, Cass County, Minnesota v. Leech Lake Band of Chippewa Indians.

Mr. Maus, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Earl Edwin Maus:

Thank you.

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court--

It's Cass County's position in this case that the alienable land patented in fee by the Federal Government and subsequently reacquired in fee by the Indian tribe is subject to State and local taxation absent treaty or statutory exceptions to the contrary.

In 1889, Congress passed the Nelson Act, which provided for the complete cession and relinquishments of lands to the Federal Government.

The Federal Government in turn, pursuant to section 3 of the Nelson Act and in conformity with section 5 of the General Allotment Act, issued individual allotments to Indians in conformity with the section 5.

Pursuant to sections 4 and 5 of the Nelson Act, they sold pinelands, which were basically timberlands, on the open market to individuals.

Pursuant to section 6, they issued homestead patents, or gave patents in fee under the Homestead Act to various individuals, again on the open market.

In 1993, Cass County began taxing all of the above lands and that was following the 1992 Yakima decision which was set forth by this case... 1992, Yakima County v. Yakima Indian Nation.

At that time, there were 21 parcels, 13 of those parcels involved a lot of land, and that issue has already been resolved in the Eighth Circuit, and it was a petition for further review of that, and that was denied on cross petition for that.

So at issue here today are the pinelands parcels, seven of those, and one homestead parcel.

These various parcels, I'd point out to the court, are now... the ones that are left, they're all in trust at the present time, have been placed in trust and I believe it's a matter of public record since about 1995.

Why we're here today, there's still the issue of back taxes that were sued for.

In addition, obviously, both sides want to know how to deal with lands--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Are these parcels within the boundaries of the tribal reservation here?

Earl Edwin Maus:

--For purposes of this lawsuit we have stipulated that the lands are within the reservation boundaries.

Whether or not they're within accepted reservation boundaries based on some of the Court's recent cases or not--

Sandra Day O'Connor:


Earl Edwin Maus:

--is a matter for another day.

Sandra Day O'Connor:


They're within the reservation boundaries and held in trust for the benefit of the tribe, by virtue of the reacquisition by the tribe?

Earl Edwin Maus:

That's correct.

They've subsequently been put in the trust, and in... obviously the period that we were taxing them was while they were being held in fee, up and until they were put in the trust, and once they're put into the trust there's no dispute that we cannot tax them.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And if they had never been sold off as pinelands and homesteads, you concede that no county tax would have been possible?

Earl Edwin Maus:

That's correct.

If they hadn't been placed on the open market, and it's our contention that the Nelson Act did that and, indeed, they have been taxed since their inception or their sale on the open market back in the early 1900's----

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And there were additional parcels that were reacquired pursuant to the lands covered by the Dawes Act as amended by the Burke Act, but they're not at issue here?

Earl Edwin Maus:

--They're no longer at issue, that's correct.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And as to those parcels the tax is being levied and the Burke Act expressly says that taxation is possible, I take it?