United States v. Mason

PETITIONER: United States
LOCATION: United States Department of Agriculture

DOCKET NO.: 72-654
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1972-1975)

CITATION: 412 US 391 (1973)
ARGUED: Apr 18, 1973
DECIDED: Jun 04, 1973

Charles A. Hobbs - for respondents
Erwin N. Griswold - for the United States
Paul C. Duncan - for State of Oklahoma

Facts of the case


Media for United States v. Mason

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 18, 1973 in United States v. Mason

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in 72-606, Oklahoma against Mason.

Mr. Solicitor General, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Erwin N. Griswold:

May it please the Court.

In the present fluid state of our law, court spend a good deal of time going over all ground, that is the situation in this case.

The case is here on certiorari to review a judgment of the Court of Claim.

The suit there was begun by the administrators of the estate of Rose Mason, who was a restricted Osage Indian, acting pursuant to this Court’s decision in West against the Oklahoma Tax Commission in 334 U.S.

The Osage agency of the Department of the Interior filed an Oklahoma estate tax return on her estate and paid the tax due.

The claim in the suit in the court below is that this payment though in conformity with a decision of this Court conceded to be squarely in point and not overruled, was in fact a breach of trust, because the United States should have known that the West case would be overruled by this Court.

The Court of Claim so held and held the United States liable to the estate for the amount of the tax paid.

Warren E. Burger:

Couldn't it be something less than that Mr. Solicitor General that there was enough of the question about the West case that some precautions might have been taken.

Erwin N. Griswold:

Yes Mr. Chief Justice, I think that's true, but I suppose that's almost always true with respect to a trustee.

If there is a decision 20 years old, maybe there are various things which might have happened, and he ought to present it to a court again.

I think that the question of the duty of a subordinate agency of the United States to question decision of this Court ought not to arise to the dignity of a breach of trust.

At any rate, that's the issue in this case.

Harry A. Blackmun:

Mr. Solicitor General does the record show the approximate size of the decedent’s estate.

I take if the tax, the state tax was $8,000, but which would indicate a very substantial estate as I recall the estate inherent --

Erwin N. Griswold:

I believe that the items are indicated on Page 6 of the Appendix and they would appear on a quick addition to come to about a $125,000 for the estate, Osage headrights 48,000, security of sales and trust 19,000, surplus trust funds 48,000 and two other items.

On the quick adding I get something like a $120,000-125,000, on which the tax paid was $7,700.

The United Stated brought Oklahoma into the case there as a third-party defendant and the court below also held that Oklahoma was liable to the United States in the amount of the tax.

Both Oklahoma and the United have sought review of this decision, and I shall appear for a 20 minutes and Mr. Duncan representing Oklahoma will use the other 10 minutes.

In order to determine whether the United States committed a breach of trust it will be necessary to review some decisions.

Now, there are three decisions of this Court which are particularly relative.

The first of these decided 30 years ago, Oklahoma Tax Commission against the United States, an opinion by Justice Black dealt with restricted Osage property, and although the United Stated appeared there and vigorously contended as it shown by the brief file, that the restricted Osage property was not subject to Oklahoma inheritance tax.

This Court reviewed the situation, concluded that there was nothing in the Osage Allotment Act which a established a tax exemption and directly held that the restricted property was subject to Oklahoma inheritance tax.

Justice Murphy dissented in was one of the dissenters in that case, but just five years later there came up the case of West against the Oklahoma Tax Commission in 334 U.S. where Justice Murphy wrote the opinion.

That case involved property held in trust for an Osage Indian.

Identical types of property to that which is involved here, item by item, the same types of property, trust property and the Court again, revealing the situation, held that the Oklahoma inheritance tax was applicable to property held in trust by the United States for an Osage Indian.

It was less than eight years later that third of these cases came to the court.

Now that is Squire against Capoeman in 351 U.S, an opinion by Chief Justice Warren.

That case involved Quinaielt Indians in the Sate of Washington under a different statued, the General Allotment Act.