415 U.S. 199 (1974), 72-1052, Morton v. Ruiz

Docket Nº:No. 72-1052
Citation:415 U.S. 199, 94 S.Ct. 1055, 39 L.Ed.2d 270
Party Name:Morton v. Ruiz
Case Date:February 20, 1974
Court:United States Supreme Court

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415 U.S. 199 (1974)

94 S.Ct. 1055, 39 L.Ed.2d 270




No. 72-1052

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 20, 1974

Argued November 5, 1973




Respondent Ruiz and his wife, Papago Indians, left their reservation in Arizona in 1940 to live in an Indian community a few miles away, and Ruiz found employment at a nearby mine. During a prolonged strike, Ruiz applied for but was denied general assistance benefits under the Snyder Act by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) because of a provision in the BIA Manual limiting eligibility to Indians living "on reservations" (and in jurisdictions under the BIA in Alaska and Oklahoma). After unsuccessful administrative appeals, respondents instituted this purported class action, claiming, inter alia, entitlement to such general assistance as a matter of statutory interpretation. The District Court's summary judgment for petitioner was reversed by the Court of Appeals on the ground that the Manual's residency limitation was inconsistent with the broad language of the Snyder Act, that Congress intended general assistance benefits to be available to all Indians, including those in respondents' position, and that Congress' subsequent actions in appropriating funds for the BIA general assistance program did not serve to ratify the imposed limitation.


1. Congress did not intend to exclude from the BIA general assistance program these respondents, and their class, who are full-blooded, unassimilated Indians living in an Indian community near their native reservation and who maintain close economic and social ties with that reservation. Pp. 212-230.

(a) The legislative history of the subcommittee hearings regarding appropriations under the Snyder Act showing that the BIA's usual practice has been to represent to Congress that "on or near" reservations is the equivalent of "on" for purposes of welfare service eligibility, and that successive budget requests were for Indians living "on or near," and not just for those living directly "on," clearly shows that Congress was led to believe that

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the programs were being made available to those nonassimilated Indians living near the reservation as well as to those living "on," and a fair reading of such history can lead only to the conclusion that Indians situated near the reservation, such as respondents, were covered by the authorization. Pp. 213-229.

(b) The fact that Congress made appropriations during the time the "on reservations" limitation appeared in the BIA Manual does not mean that Congress implicitly ratified the BIA policy, where such limitation had not been published in the Federal Register or in the Code of Federal Regulations, and there is nothing in the legislative history to show that the limitation was brought to the appropriation subcommittees' attention, let alone to the entire Congress. But, even assuming that Congress knew of the limitation when making appropriations, there is no reason to assume that it did not equate the "on reservations" language with the "on or near" category that continuously was described as the service area. P. 230.

2. Assuming, arguendo, that the Secretary rationally could limit the "on or near" appropriation to include only Indians who lived directly "on" the reservation (plus those in Alaska and Oklahoma), this has not been validly accomplished. Pp. 230-238.

(a) By not publishing its general assistance eligibility requirement in the Federal Register or in the Code of Federal Regulations, the BIA has failed to comply with the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) as to publication of substantive policies. The Secretary's conscious choice not to treat this extremely significant requirement as a legislative type rule, renders it ineffective so far as extinguishing the [94 S.Ct. 1058] rights of those otherwise within the class of beneficiaries contemplated by Congress. Pp. 232-236.

(b) Moreover, the BIA has failed to comply with its own internal procedures, since the "on reservations" limitation is clearly an important substantive policy within the class of directives -- those that "inform the public of privileges and benefits available" and of "eligibility requirements" -- that the BIA Manual declares are among those to be published. P. 235.

(c) Even assuming the lack of binding effect of the BIA policy, it is too late to argue that the words "on reservations" in the BIA Manual mean something different from "on or near," and therefore are entitled to deference as an administrative interpretation

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when in fact, the two have been continuously equated by the BIA to Congress. Pp. 236-237.

462 F.2d 818, affirmed and remanded.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

BLACKMUN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents a narrow but important issue in the administration of the federal general assistance program for needy Indians:

Are general assistance benefits available only to those Indians living on reservations in the United States (or in areas regulated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Alaska and Oklahoma), and are they thus unavailable to Indians (outside Alaska and Oklahoma) living off, although near, a reservation?

The United States District Court for the District of Arizona answered this question favorably to petitioner, the Secretary of the Interior, when, without opinion and on cross-motions for summary judgment, it dismissed the respondents' complaint. The Court of Appeals, one judge dissenting, reversed. 462 F.2d 818 (CA9 1972). We granted certiorari because of the significance of the

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issue and because of the vigorous assertion that the judgment of the Court of Appeals was inconsistent with long-established policy of the Secretary and of the Bureau. 411 U.S. 947 (1973).


The pertinent facts are agreed upon, although, as to some, the petitioner Secretary denies knowledge but does not dispute them. App. 45-48. The respondents, Ramon Ruiz and his wife, Anita, are Papago Indians and United States citizens. In 1940, they left the Papago Reservation in Arizona1 to seek employment 15 miles away at the Phelps-Dodge copper mines at Ajo. Mr. Ruiz found work there, and they settled in a community at Ajo called the "Indian Village" and populated almost entirely by Papagos.2 Practically all the land and most of the homes in the Village are owned or rented by Phelps-Dodge. The Ruizes have lived in Ajo continuously since 1940, and have been in their present residence since 1947. A minor daughter lives with them. They speak and understand the Papago language, but [94 S.Ct. 1059] only limited English. Apart from Mr. Ruiz' employment with

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Phelps-Dodge, they have not been assimilated into the dominant culture, and they appear to have maintained a close tie with the nearby reservation.3

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In July, 1967, 27 years after the Ruizes moved to Ajo, the mine where he worked was shut down by a strike. It remained closed until the following March. While the strike was in progress, Mr. Ruiz' sole income was a $15 per week striker's benefit paid by the union.4 He sought welfare assistance from the State of Arizona, but this was denied because of the State's apparent policy that striking workers are not eligible for general assistance or emergency relief.5

On December 11, 1967, Mr. Ruiz applied for general assistance benefits from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). He was immediately notified by letter that he was ineligible for general assistance because of the provision (in effect since 1952) in 66 Indian Affairs Manual 3.1.4 (1965) that eligibility is limited to Indians living "on reservations" and in jurisdictions under the BIA in Alaska and Oklahoma.6 An appeal to the Superintendent

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of the Papago Indian Agency was unsuccessful. A further appeal to the Phoenix Area [94 S.Ct. 1060] Director of the BIA led to a hearing, but this, too, proved unsuccessful. The sole ground for the denial of general assistance benefits was that the Ruizes resided outside the boundaries of the Papago Reservation.

The respondents then instituted the present purported class action against the Secretary, claiming, as a matter of statutory interpretation, entitlement to the general assistance for which they had applied, and also challenging the eligibility provision as a violation of Fifth Amendment due process and of the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Art. IV, § 2, of the Constitution.

The Court of Appeals' reversal of the District Court's summary judgment for the Secretary was on the ground that the Manual's residency limitation was inconsistent with the broad language of the Snyder Act, 25 U.S.C. § 13, "that Congress intended general assistance benefits to be available to all Indians, including those in the position" of the Ruizes, 462 F.2d at 821, and that subsequent actions of Congress in appropriating funds for the BIA general assistance program did not serve to ratify the imposed limitation. The dissent took the position that the Secretary's policy was within the broad discretionary authority delegated to the Secretary by Congress with respect to the allocation of limited funds.


The Snyder Act,7 42 Stat. 208, 25 U.S.C. § 13, approved November 2, 1921, provides the underlying congressional

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authority for most BIA activities including, in particular and importantly, the general assistance program. Prior to the Act, there was no such general authorization. As a result, appropriation requests made by the House Committee on Indian Affairs were frequently stricken on the House floor by point-of-order objections. See H.R.Rep. No. 275, 67th Cong., 1st Sess. (1921); S.Rep. No. 294, 67th Cong., 1st Sess. (1921); 61 Cong.Rec. 4659672 (1921). The Snyder Act was designed to remedy this situation. It is...

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