Brief Fact Summary. Appellees filed suit alleging that the escheat provision of the Indian Land Consolidation Act resulted in a taking of their property without just compensation which was in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. The States’, and where appropriate, the United States, has broad authority to adjust the rules governing the descent and devise of property without implicating the guarantees of the Just Compensation Clause.
In 1889, pursuant to a series of land acts enacted by Congress, which divided communal reservations of Indian tribes into individual allotments for Indians and unallotted lands for non-Indian settlement, each male Sioux head of household took 320 acres of land and other individuals took 160 acres. The lands were held in trust by the United States in order to protect the allottees from improvident disposition of their lands to white settlers. The allotment program quickly failed because the Indians leased their allotted lands to white ranchers and farmers, which resulted in parcels being splintered into multiple undivided interests that could not be alienated or partitioned, due to the fact the land was held in trust. To address this problem, Congress enacted the Indian Land Consolidation Act of 1983, which contained an escheat provision. The escheat provision essentially provided that any undivided fractional interest in a tract within a tribe’s reservation or jurisdiction,
would escheat to that tribe and could not be passed by intestacy or devise, if the interest represented two percent or less of the total acreage of the tract and it earned its owner less than $100 in the preceding year before it was due to escheat. The statute became law o January 12, 1983 and it contained no provision for the payment of compensation to the owners of interests covered by the escheat provision. Mary Irving, Patrick Pumpkin Seed, and Eileen Bisonette, appellees, are or represent heirs or devisees of members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who died in March, April, and June of 1983. But for the escheat provision of the Act, $2,700 which represents 26 escheatable interests in the Cross estate and $1,816 which represents 13 escheatable interests in the Pumpkin Seed estate would have passed, in ordinary course, to appellees or those they represent. Appellees filed suit in the District Court alleging the escheat provision resulted in a taking without just compensation under t
he Fifth Amendment. The District Court held the statute was Constitutional. The Court of Appeals reversed concluding that while appellees’ had no vested rights in decedent’s property, their decedents had a right to control the disposition of their property at death. The Court held that appellees had standing to invoke that right and that the taking of that right without just compensation to decedents; estates violated the Fifth Amendment.
Issue. Whether the original version of the escheat provision of the Indian Land Consolidation act of 1983 constituted a taking of appellees’ decedents’ property without just compensation?
Held. Yes. Judgment affirmed.
Since the escheatable rights are not de minimis, nor does the availability of inter vivos transfer obviate the need for descent and devise, a total abrogation of these rights cannot be upheld. The regulation virtually amounts to the abrogation of the right to pass on a certain type of property-a small undivided interest-to one’s heirs.
Discussion. In this case, both descent and devise of a particular class of property are abolished and thus may be a taking.