United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Sioux Nation of Indians
LOCATION: Great Sioux Indian Reservation

DOCKET NO.: 79-639
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)

CITATION: 448 US 371 (1980)
ARGUED: Mar 24, 1980
DECIDED: Jun 30, 1980

Arthur Lazarus, Jr. - argued the cause for the respondent
Louis F. Claiborne - Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, argued the cause for the United States

Facts of the case

In the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, the United States granted the Sioux Indian Nation the Great Sioux Reservation, including the Black Hills of South Dakota. Congress reneged in 1877, passing an act that reclaimed the Black Hills. The Sioux Nation requested compensation in 1920. The United States Court of Claims ruled against the Sioux Nation in 1942. Congress then established the Indian Claims Commission in 1946. The Commission ruled that the Sioux Nation was not barred by the Court of Claims decision and ruled that Congress used its powers of eminent domain in 1877 and the Sioux were therefore entitled to compensation. The Court of Claims maintained that the Sioux were barred by their first case. Congress amended the Indian Claims Commission Act in 1978, removing the judicial bar. The Court of Claims then held that the Sioux were entitled to $17.1 million.


(1) Was Congress' 1978 amendment a violation of separation of powers?

(2) Was the reclamation of land in 1877 a taking of property requiring compensation under the Just Compensation Clause of the Fifth Amendment?

Media for United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 24, 1980 (Part 1) in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 24, 1980 (Part 2) in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Claiborne, you may proceed.

Louis F. Claiborne:

Mr. Chief Justice, it ill behoves the Sioux Nation who have, at least since 1920 have been very much the special favorites of the laws, to put themselves in the shoes of a white claimant who would not be here having been barred by limitations, res judicata or estoppeled by the admission of counsel set off --

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

I'm sorry. I -- I have a difficulty hearing you.

Louis F. Claiborne:

A white person in the same shoes would not be here having been barred by limitations by res judicata.

Potter Stewart:

Well, unless here were the beneficiary of this same Act of Congress?

Louis F. Claiborne:

Yes sir, but most important, he would have been able to plead payment as indeed we are free to do though not to defeat the award of $17 million, but to determine whether there was a -- a taking.

The Court of Claims in this case was very clear about that.

They held that although the gratu -- the provisions supplied were not allowable as an offset against the award, they were to be taken into account in determining whether there was fair dealing or whether Congress acted in good faith.

Now, whether Congress acted in good faith depends on whether at the time the value of the provisions was sought to be somewhat equivalent to the value of the Black Hills.

The value of the Black Hills is a matter which a century later gave rise to enormous controversy where the Commission experts varied between less than $5 million to more than $25 million.

The Commission after months of hearings and with years to ponder came up with the figure of $17.1 million, but Congress cannot be faulted if in 1877 it did not accurately know that value.

It would still have been acting in good faith if it had somewhat undervalued the value of that territory.

It certainly cannot be faulted because in fact its promise was over generous and as to that promise and its implementation, my learned friend has suggested that the figure of $43 million is confected.

It comes out of the Government Accounting Office reports.

It is a finding of the Court of Claims in 1942.

It was increased by an admission of former counsel in the 1950s.

It is not a figure taken out of the air.

It is well-known and was then well-known that this obligation would exceed some million dollars a year.

Congress had deleted the limitation to 10 years obviously anticipating that it might need to be continued longer.

At the very least, Congress undertook a very serious substantial obligation which was fully fulfilled and it ought not now to be said to be to have been acting in such bad faith as to constitute an unconstitutional taking.

Byron R. White:

Then -- you -- you say that if the Government took -- takes the Black Hills and says our, we promise to pay you a $100,000 a year forever for the Black Hills.

Obviously, you -- you say there's no taking.

Louis F. Claiborne:

Exactly so, Mr. Justice White.

Byron R. White:

And -- so you don't -- you don't -- you don't think that necessary -- unnecessary precondition is that at the time the property is taken, that a total value be set and paid over.

Louis F. Claiborne:

Not in such a case as this.

To delay for evaluation would have simply invited the Hills from being stolen for the Sioux and perhaps later required when the Government had gone for far les --

Byron R. White:

Well, it would've been -- it would've been a taking vis-à-vis a white.

Louis F. Claiborne:

In the case of a white man, that perhaps the amount must be qualified.

Byron R. White:

I mean if a white -- if white -- as if a group white people had owned the White Hills and the Government had done this to them, that would have been a taking.

Louis F. Claiborne:

I think not in light of the actual payment that was made --