United States v. James Rickert

Decision Date23 February 1903
Docket NumberNo. 216,216
Citation47 L.Ed. 532,188 U.S. 432,23 S.Ct. 478
PartiesUNITED STATES, Appt. , v. JAMES A. RICKERT, as County Treasurer in and for Roberts County, South Dakota
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

This suit was instituted under the direction of the Attorney General of the United States, for the purpose of restraining the collection of taxes alleged to be due the county of Roberts, South Dakota, in respect of certain permanent improvements on, and personal property used in the cultivation of, lands in that county occupied by members of the Sisseton band of Sioux Indians in the state of South Dakota.

The case is here upon questions certified by the judges of the United States circuit court of appeals for the eighth circuit.

According to the certificate the bill alleged that Charles R. Crawford, Adam Little Thunder, Solomon Two Stars, and Victor Renville are Indians and members of the Sisseton band of Sioux Indians in the state of South Dakota, wards of the United States and under its guardianship and supervision, and residents of that portion of the Sisseton agency situated in the county of Roberts; that the said Indians are holding, and for several years last past have held, allotted lands in that county, and within the former Sisseton Indian Reservation, which lands were allotted to those Indians under the provisions of the agreement of December the 12th, 1889, as ratified by the act of March 3d, 1891 (26 Stat. at L. 1035, 1036, chap. 543), and more particularly under § 5 of the general allotment act of Congress approved February the 8th, 1887 (24 Stat. at L. 389, chap. 119), and that the lands so allotted by the United States are held in trust by the United States under the provisions of the lastnamed act.

The bill then alleged that during the year 1900 the duly authorized officers of Roberts county listed certain improvements on the allotted lands of Crawford, and returned the assessment thereon at the sum of $630, such improvements consisting of a large frame house and barn attached thereto (a fixture and permanent improvement upon the allotted lands), and other improvements of a permanent character attached to these lands; that the amount of taxes extended on the tax roll of such improvement is for state and county taxes for the year 1900 was the sum of $21.42; that for that year the officers of Roberts county listed, assessed, and returned upon the tax rolls of the county certain personal property against Crawford, consisting of horses, one cow, and two wagons, at the aggregate valuation of $129, upon which was assessed and levied a tax of $4.90; and that said personal property was issued to the allottee by the United States pursuant to the acts of Congress and the treaties between the United States and the band of Indians to which Crawford belongs, was branded 'I. D.,' and was then and there in the possession of the allottee, being kept and used by him upon his allotment.

Similar allegations were made in reference to the other Indians named in the bill, covering the years 1899 and 1900.

It was also alleged that the defendant was county treasurer and collector of taxes for the county, and threatened to sell, and was about to sell, the property just described as that of the Indians named in the bill and assessed for the years above stated, and would sell the same unless restrained, whereby the United States would be subjected to and compelled to defend a multitude of actions, suits, and proceedings which would greatly embarrass it; that the assessments of said property and the amount of taxes so assessed and returned upon the tax roll of the county are upon the books of the county and of record in the office of the county auditor and treasurer, and constitute a cloud upon the title of the lands of the United States above referred to.

It was further alleged that the United States was without any plain, adequate, and speedy remedy at law, and could only have relief in a court of equity, and that irreparable injury would be inflicted upon it in case the enforcement, assessment, and collection of such taxes were not enjoined.

The defendant demurred to the bill upon the following grounds: That it did not disclose any equity nor entitle the United States to the relief prayed; that the United States had no interest in the subject-matter of the suit; that the property assessed by Roberts county was personal property, and the injunction would not lie to restrain the collection of the tax; and that the United States had an adequate remedy at law.

The demurrer to the bill was sustained, and the government failing to amend, the bill was dismissed upon the merits. Subsequently, the case was carried to the circuit court of appeals.

Thereupon, that court made a certificate of certain questions in respect to which it desired the instructions of this court. These questions will be referred to in the course of this opinion.

Assistant Attorney General Van Devanter and Mr. Joseph R. Webster for appellant.

Messrs. A. B. Kittredge and Warren D. Lane for appellee.

Mr. Justice Harlan delivered the opinion of the court:

I. Were the lands held by the allottees, Charles R. Crawford and the other Indians named in the bill, subject to assessment and taxation by the taxing authorities of Roberts county, South Dakota?

This is the first of the questions certified by the judges of the circuit court of appeals. It is not, in our opinion, difficult of solution.

By the act of Congress of February 8th, 1887, chap. 119, referred to in the certificate and known as the general allotment act, provision was made for the allotment of lands in severalty to Indians on the various reservations, and for extending the protection of the laws of the United States and the territories over the Indians. To that end the President was authorized, whenever, in his opinion, a reservation or any part thereof was advantageous for agricultural and grazing purposes, to cause it, or any part thereof, to be surveyed or resurveyed if necessary, and to allot the lands in the reservation in severalty to any Indian located thereon, in certain quantities specified in the statute,—the allotments to be made by special agents appointed for that purpose, and by the agents in charge of the special reservations on which the allotments were made. 24 Stat. at L. 388, 389, 390, § 1.

What interest, if any, did the Indian allottee acquire in the land allotted to him? That question is answered by the 5th section of the allotment act, which provides: 'That upon the approval of the allotments provided for in this act by the Secretary of the Interior, he shall cause patents to issue therefor in the name of the allottees, which patents shall be of the legal effect, and declare, that the United States does and will hold the land thus allotted, for the period of twenty-five years, in trust for the sole use and benefit of the Indian to whom such allotment shall have been made, or, in case of his decease, of his heirs according to the laws of the state or territory where such land is located, and that at the expiration of said period the United States will convey the same by patent to said Indian, or his heirs as aforesaid, in fee, discharged of said trust and free of all charge or encumbrance whatsoever: Provided, That the President of the United States may in any case, in his discretion, extend the period. And if any conveyance shall be made of the lands set apart and allotted, as herein provided, or any contract made touching the same, before the expiration of the time above mentioned, such conveyance or contract shall be absolutely null and void: Provided, That the law of descent and partition in force in the state or territory where such lands are situate shall apply thereto after patents therefor have been executed and delivered, except as herein otherwise provided; . . .' 24 Stat. at L. 389, chap. 119, § 5.

The word 'patents,' where it is first used in this section, was not happily chosen to express the thought which, it is clear, all parts of the section being considered, Congress intended to express. The 'patents' here referred to (although that word has various meanings) were, as the statute plainly imports, nothing more than instruments or memoranda in writing, designed to show that for a period of twenty-five years the United States would hold the land allotted, in trust for the sole use and benefit of the allottee, or, in case of his death, of his heirs, and subsequently, at the expiration of that period,—unless the time was extended by the President,—convey the fee, discharged of the trust and free of all charge or encumbrance. In other words, the United States retained the legal title, giving the Indian allottee a paper or writing, improperly called a patent, showing that at a particular time in the future, unless it was extended by the President, he would be entitled to a regular patent conveying the fee. This interpretation of the statute is in harmony with the explicit declaration that any conveyance of the land, or any contract touching the same, while the United States held the title in trust, should be absolutely null and void. So that the United States retained its hold on the land allotted for the period of twenty-five years after the allotment, and as much longer as the President, in his discretion, should determine.

The bill, as appears from the certificate of the judges, shows that the lands in question were allotted 'under provisions of the agreement of December 12th, 1889, as ratified by the act of March 3d, 1891, and more particularly under § 5 of the general allotment act approved February 8th, 1887.' Upon inspection of that agreement, we find nothing that indicates any different relation of the United States to the allotted lands from that created or recognized by the act of 1887. On the contrary, the agreement contemplates that patents shall issue for the lands allotted under it 'upon the same terms and conditions and...

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