Hodel v. Irving

PETITIONER: Donald P. Hodel
RESPONDENT: Mary Irving, et al.
LOCATION: Oglala Sioux Tribe

DOCKET NO.: 85-637
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-1987)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 481 US 704 (1987)
ARGUED: Oct 06, 1986
DECIDED: May 18, 1987

Edwin S. Kneedler - on behalf of the appellant
Yvette Hall War Bonnett - on behalf of the appellees

Facts of the case

In 1983, Congress enacted the Indian Land Consolidation Act. Prior to this act, tribal land was allotted to individual tribal members in trust. Individual owners would hold the land in trust and could convey the land to their heirs. If a tribal member who held land in trust died without a will, the land would be divided among all of the heirs of that tribal member. This eventually lead to heirs inheriting very small fractional interests in land. The Indian Land Consolidation Act contained a provision which would transfer certain minimal fractional interests in land away from the individual heirs and back to the tribal governments.

Mary Irving, Patrick Pumpkin Seed, and Eileen Bissonette were enrolled members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and were heirs or devisees of Tribe members who died in 1983. Each had inherited a fractional interest in land which they would lose to the tribal government under the Indian Land Consolidation Act.

Irving, Seed, and Bissonette filed suit in the district court claiming that the provision of the Indian Land Consolidation Act resulted in taking of property without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment. The district court held that the statute was constitutional and that the complainants had no vested interest in the property of the decedents.The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed the district court. It held that the complainants had standing and that the statute did violate the Fifth Amendment. The Secretary of the Interior appealed the appellate court's decision.


Is the provision of the Indian Land Consolidation Act which would take Indians' fractional interest in land and convey those interests to the control of the tribal government an unconstitutional taking?

Media for Hodel v. Irving

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 06, 1986 in Hodel v. Irving

William H. Rehnquist:

We will hear arguments first this morning in Number 85-637, Donald P. Hodel versus Mary Irving.

Mr. Kneedler, you may proceed when you are ready.

Edwin S. Kneedler:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, this case is here on direct appeal from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

That Court held unconstitutional an Act of Congress that was passed in 1983 to address what Congress perceived to be the serious adverse consequences for Indian reservations resulting from the increasingly fragmented ownership of Indian allotments.

The statutory provision involved, Section 207 of the Indian Land Consolidation Act of 1983, provides for the escheat to the tribe concerned of certain de minimis fractional undivided interests--

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Is that a very accurate term, "escheat" to the tribe?

Edwin S. Kneedler:

--Yes, I think escheat is an accurate term.

Escheat is typically defined to mean the reversion to the state of interests in property where there is no heir qualified to receive it, and in this instance Congress has determined by reference to the size of the property interest involved that no heir should be qualified to receive the property at the time--

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Well, is the tribe regarded as the state?

Edwin S. Kneedler:

--The tribe is not guardian of the individual Indians' estate.

The United States is trustee for the particular property.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

No, is the tribe for purposes of escheat regarded as the state?

Edwin S. Kneedler:

Oh, I am sorry.

That is what the analogy would be, yes, that the tribe is the local unit of government; in addition to being the membership organization is also the local unit of government and the responsible entity on the Indian reservation, and Congress, I am sure, believed that it was better to have the property interest escheat to the tribe, the unit of government closest to the Indian, and the unit of government from which the land first came, and which has the responsibility for the Indian rather than to the United States government in fee.

Byron R. White:

You wouldn't care if we just called it a reversion?

Edwin S. Kneedler:

I don't think the label is important.

Byron R. White:

But the statute calls it escheat?

Edwin S. Kneedler:

The statute does call it escheat.

It would also be possible to characterize it as Congress having designated the tribe as the heir, the statutory heir of the interests when the Indian dies.

However it is characterized, Congress has chosen to keep the property in Indian hands rather than to have it continue to descend to individual Indians in very small portions.

The Court of Appeals--

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Incidentally, how big are the portions generally?

Edwin S. Kneedler:

--Under the Act the only thing that escheats is an interest that represents 2 percent or less of the overall allotment and has earned less than $100, or in fact under the amended Act is incapable of earning in the next five years more than $100.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Does that suggest that the acreage in each instance is very small?

Edwin S. Kneedler:

Well, the allotments, yes.

Well, it depends again how one would define as small.

The allotments under the General Allotment Act were typically 160 acres for a head of a family, smaller amounts to others.

Under the Sioux Allotment Act at issue here the allotments were 320 acres for heads of families, so 2 percent of a 160 acre allotment would be two or three acres.

William H. Rehnquist:

Are these undivided interests?

Edwin S. Kneedler:

These are undivided interests.