Delaware Tribal Business Committee v. Weeks,
430 U.S. 73 (1977)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Delaware Tribal Business Committee v. Weeks, 430 U.S. 73 (1977)

Delaware Tribal Business Committee v. Weeks

No. 75-1301

Argued November 10, 1976

Decided February 23, 1977*

430 U.S. 73


The Delaware Indians, who originally resided in the Northeastern United States, were gradually forced to move westward in the 19th century, and the tribe became geographically scattered. One group (the Cherokee Delawares), which initially had settled on a Kansas reservation as part of the tribe's main body, eventually moved to "Indian Country" in Oklahoma, became assimilated with the Cherokees, and is today a federally recognized tribe. Another group (the Absentee Delawares), which never joined the main body in Kansas, but migrated to Oklahoma and settled with the Wichita and Caddo Indians, is also a federally recognized tribe. A third group (the Kansas Delawares) lived with the main body on the Kansas reservation, but remained in Kansas when the Cherokee Delawares moved to Oklahoma; under an 1866 treaty, the Kansas Delawares elected to become United States citizens and to receive individual parcels of land in Kansas on condition that they dissolve their relationship with the tribe and participate in tribal assets only to the extent of a "just proportion" of the tribe's credits "then held in trust by the United States," and the descendants of this group are not a federally recognized tribe. The question presented by this litigation is whether the Kansas Delawares were denied equal protection of the laws in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment because they were excluded from the distribution of funds authorized by an Act of Congress, which provided for distribution of funds only to the Cherokee and Absentee Delawares pursuant to an award by the Indian Claims Commission to redress a breach by the United States of an 1854 treaty with the Delaware Tribe.


1. The plenary power of Congress in matters of Indian affairs does not mean that an equal protection challenge to the instant distribution statute is not justiciable. "The power of Congress over Indian affairs

Page 430 U. S. 74

may be of a plenary nature, but it is not absolute." United States v. Alcea Band of Tillamooks, 329 U. S. 40, 329 U. S. 54. The appropriate standard of judicial review is that the legislative judgment should not be disturbed "[a]s long as the special treatment can be tied rationally to the fulfillment of Congress' unique obligation toward the Indians," Morton v. Mancari, 417 U. S. 535, 417 U. S. 555. Pp. 430 U. S. 83-85.

2. The exclusion of the Kansas Delawares from distribution under the Act does not offend the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, since, on the record, such exclusion was "tied rationally to the fulfillment of Congress' unique obligation toward the Indians." Pp. 430 U. S. 85-89.

(a) The Kansas Delawares, not being a recognized tribal entity, are simply individual Indians with no vested rights in any tribal property, such as is distributed by the Act. As tribal property, the appropriated funds were subject to Congress' exercise of its traditional broad authority over the management and distribution of property held by recognized tribes, an authority "drawn both explicitly and implicitly from the Constitution itself," Morton v. Mancari, supra at 417 U. S. 551-552. Pp. 430 U. S. 85-86.

(b) An earlier exclusion of the Kansas Delawares from participation in tribal assets in another Act settling clam of the Delaware Tribe, while not of itself legitimating their exclusion from the Act in question, nevertheless indicates that Congress has historically distinguished them from the Cherokee Delawares in distributing tribal awards. Pp. 430 U. S. 86-87.

(c) It appears from the legislative history of the Act in question that Congress deliberately limited the distribution under the Act to the Cherokee and Absentee Delawares to avoid undue delay, administrative difficulty, and potentially unmeritorious claims, and this congressional choice is rationally supported, even though based on an unrelated experience in ignorance of the effect of the limitation of the distribution on the Kansas Delawares. Pp. 430 U. S. 87-89.

406 F.Supp. 1309, reversed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined and in Parts I and II of which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, J., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the result, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 430 U. S. 90. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 430 U. S. 91.

Page 430 U. S. 75

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