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Law School Case Brief

Ward v. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs - 253 U.S. 17, 40 S. Ct. 419 (1920)

Rule:

The right to the exemption provided for by 30 Stat. 507 is a federal right. Whether the right is denied, or not given due recognition, by a state supreme court is a question as to which claimants are entitled to invoke the United States Supreme Court's judgment. It, therefore, is within the Supreme Court's province to inquire not only whether the right was denied in express terms, but also whether it was denied in substance and effect, as by putting forward nonfederal grounds of decision that were without any fair or substantial support. Of course, if non-federal grounds, plainly untenable, may be thus put forward successfully, the Supreme Court's power to review easily may be avoided. With this qualification, it is true that a judgment of a state court, which is put on independent non-federal grounds broad enough to sustain it, cannot be reviewed by the Supreme Court. But the qualification is a material one and cannot be disregarded without neglecting or renouncing a jurisdiction conferred by law and designed to protect and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and the laws made in pursuance thereof. 

Facts:

Coleman J. Ward and sixty-six other Indians were members of the Choctaw tribe. They received allotments of land by congressional enactment, which subjected the right of alienation to certain restrictions and provided that the lands allotted were nontaxable while the title remained in the original allottee, but not to exceed 21 years from date of patent. By the Act of 1908, Congress removed the right to alienation and declared that the allotments were subject to taxation. After counties began taxing the allotted lands, cases were filed to maintain the exemption. The board taxed the allotments prior to the resolution of those cases. The claimants paid the taxes to prevent sale of the lands and filed a state court action to recover the moneys paid. The trial court entered judgment for the claimants. However, the state supreme court reversed the judgment. The claimants filed a petition for a writ of certiorari.

Issue:

Were the members of the Choctaw tribe entitled to the exemption to pay taxes of the allotted lands?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The United States Supreme Court held that the exemption was a vested property right arising out of a law of Congress and protected by the Constitution of the United States. The taxes were not paid voluntarily and, therefore, no statutory authority was essential to enable or require the board to refund the money.

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