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Law School Case Brief

Cty. of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation - 470 U.S. 226, 105 S. Ct. 1245 (1985)


No purchase or grant of lands, or of any title or claim thereto, from any Indians or nation or tribe of Indians, within the bounds of the United States, shall be of any validity in law or equity, unless the same be made by a treaty or convention entered into pursuant to the constitution and in the presence, and with the approbation of the commissioner or commissioners of the United States appointed to supervise such transactions. 1 Stat. 330, § 8 (1793).


Respondents, the Tribes of the Oneida Indians, brought suit in 1970 against the Counties of Oneida and Madison, New York, in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, seeking damages representing the fair rental value of that part of the counties that the Tribes sold to the state in 1795, allegedly without the consent of the United States in violation of the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1793 (1 Stat 329). Respondents sought damages for fair rental value of the land for a two-year period. Petitioner counties cross-claimed against the state for indemnification. After the District Court dismissed the action on the ground that the complaint failed to state a claim under federal law, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed. the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari, holding that, at least for jurisdictional purposes, the Tribes stated a claim for possession under federal law. On remand, the District Court trifurcated trial of the issues; in the first phase, it found the counties liable for wrongful possession. in the second phase, it awarded the Tribes damages, and in the final phase, it held that third-party defendant state of New York must indemnify the counties. The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's ruling with respect to liability and indemnification, but remanded for further proceedings on the amount of damages. Petitioners, the State and the counties, again sought review in the United States Supreme Court.


Were the Indian tribes entitled to damages for the fair rental value of the property that was conveyed to the state counties without the consent of the United States?




The Oneida Tribes had a common law right of action for unlawful possession. The Supreme Court affirmed the district court's ruling with respect to the finding of liability under the Federal common law. Respondents' cause of action was not barred by the statute of limitations or political question doctrine and had not abated. More so, the United States did not ratify New York state's unlawful purchase of respondents' land by passage of subsequent treaties.

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