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U.S. Supreme Court

Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida, 414 U.S. 661 (1974)

Oneida Indian Nation of New York v. County of Oneida, New York

No. 72-851

Argued November 6-7, 1973

Decided January 21, 1974

414 U.S. 661


Petitioners brought this action for the fair rental value for a specified period of certain land in New York that the Oneidas had ceded to the State in 1795, alleging, inter alia, that the Oneidas had owned and occupied the land from time immemorial to the time of the American Revolution; that, in the 1780's and 1790's, various treaties with the United States had confirmed their right to possession of the land until purchased by the United States; that, in 1790, the treaties had been implemented by the Nonintercourse Act forbidding the conveyance of Indian lands without the United States' consent; and that the 1795 cession was without such consent, and hence ineffective to terminate the Oneidas' right to possession under the treaties and applicable federal statutes. The District Court, ruling that the action arose under state law, dismissed the complaint for failure to raise a question arising under the laws of the United States within the meaning of either 28 U.S.C. § 1331 or 28 U.S.C. § 1362. The Court of Appeals, relying on the "well pleaded complaint rule" of Taylor v. Anderson, 234 U. S. 74, affirmed and held that, although the decision would ultimately depend on whether the 1795 cession complied with the Nonintercourse Act, and what the consequences would be if it did not, this alone did not establish "arising under" jurisdiction because the federal issue was not one of the necessary elements of the complaint, which essentially sought relief based on the right to possession of real property.

Held: The complaint states a controversy arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States sufficient to invoke the jurisdiction of the District Court under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1362. Pp. 414 U. S. 666-682.

(a) Petitioners asserted a current right to possession conferred by federal law, wholly independent of state law, the threshold allegation required of such a well pleaded complaint -- the right to possession -- being plainly enough alleged to be based on federal law so that the federal law issue did not arise solely in anticipation of a defense. Pp. 414 U. S. 666, 414 U. S. 677.

Page 414 U. S. 662

(b) Petitioners' claim of a federal right to possession governed wholly by federal law is not so insubstantial or devoid of merit as to preclude a federal controversy within the District Court's jurisdiction, regardless of how the federal issue is ultimately resolved. Pp. 414 U. S. 666-667.

(c) Indian title is a matter of federal law, and can be extinguished only with federal consent. Pp. 414 U. S. 670-674.

(d) This is not a case where the underlying right or obligation arises only under state law and federal law is merely alleged as a barrier to its effectuation. Gully v. First National Bank, 299 U. S. 109, distinguished. Pp. 414 U. S. 675-676.

(e) In sustaining the District Court's jurisdiction, the well pleaded complaint rule of Taylor v. Anderson, supra, is not disturbed, since here the right to possession itself is claimed to arise under federal law in the first instance, and allegedly aboriginal title of an Indian tribe guaranteed by treaty and protected by statute has never been extinguished. P. 414 U. S. 676.

(f) The complaint satisfies the requirement that it reveal a dispute or controversy respecting the validity, construction, or effect of a federal law upon the determination of which the result depends. Pp. 414 U. S. 677-678.

(g) The conclusion that this case arises under the laws of the United States comports with the language and legislative history of 25 U.S.C. § 233 granting to New York civil jurisdiction over disputes between Indians or between Indians and others. Pp. 414 U. S. 678-682.

464 F.2d 916, reversed and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. REHNQUIST, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which POWELL, J., joined, post, p. 414 U. S. 682.

Page 414 U. S. 663

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