Babbitt v. Youpee

519 U.S. 234 (1997)


Congress initiated an Indian land program that authorized the division of communal Indian property. Land was parceled out to individuals. Allotted lands were held in trust by the U.S. and owned by the allottee subject to restrictions on alienation. On the death of the allottee, the land descended according to the law of the State. In 1910, Congress allowed the allottees to devise their interests in allotted land. This was a terrible policy. It produced a dramatic decline of Indian land in the hands of Indians, and the allotments became increasingly fractionated with some parcels being held by dozens of owners. Because Indians often died without wills, many interests passed to multiple heirs. Eventually, by 1928, Congress figured that there was a problem mainly because the administration of the fractionalized allotments was costing money. Congress ended further allotment in 1934 but the lands already allotted continued to be splintered with each passing generation. In 1983, Congress enacted Section 207 to ameliorate the extreme fractionalism attending a century old allotment policy that yielded multiple ownership of single parcels of Indian land. Section 207 provides that certain small interests in Indian lands will escheat to the tribe upon the death of the owner of the interest. In Hodel, the Supreme Court held that the original version of 207 affected a taking without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment. The regulation amounted to a virtual abrogation of the right to pass on a certain type of property. Such a complete abrogation of the rights of descent and devise could not be upheld. While Hodel was still pending in the Court of Appeals, Congress amended 207. The new regulations held that an interest was fractional if it constituted 2% or less of the total acreage and it was incapable of earning $100 in any one of five years from the decedent’s death. If the interest earned less than $100 in any one of five years, there was a rebuttable presumption that such interest was incapable of doing so. The act also allowed a devise of the fractional interest to any other owner of an undivided fractional interest in the same parcel. Tribes were also permitted to override the provisions through the adoption of their own codes subject to the approval of the Secretary of Interior. Ps are the children of potential heirs of Youpee, an enrolled member of the Sioux and Assiniboine Tribes. Youpee died testate in 1990. He devised to Ps his several undivided interests in allotted trust lands. The interests were valued under $1,239. Each interest was devised to a single descendant. There was no splintering of ownership, but fractionation was still in force.