Chicago Law Review Comment on Limiting State Eminent Domain Power under 25 USC § 357

Addison W. Bennett has published “Partially Tribal Land: The Case for Limiting State Eminent Domain Power under 25 USC § 357” in the University of Chicago Law Review (PDF).

The abstract:

When a state utility wishes to cross land located within a Native American reservation, but the landowners refuse to allow it, the utility in most circumstances may exercise eminent domain over the land. Under the authority of a federal statute, 25 USC § 357, states may generally condemn allotments, plots owned by individuals that lie within the sovereign boundaries of a tribal reservation. Courts have long recognized that the state authority to condemn these allotments under § 357 arises from the principle that individually owned allotments are no longer “tribal” land and, as a result, they are not protected by tribal sovereignty.

Congress’s failure to transition away from the allotment system has resulted in an ownership structure for certain plots of reservation land that it did not antic- ipate when it enacted § 357. Today, not all allotments are held entirely by individu- als, and many now contain fractional, undivided interests that belong to tribes themselves. This status of joint ownership between individuals and tribes, which this Comment refers to as “partially tribal,” leads to considerable complications with respect to the scope of § 357. Courts have routinely held that land owned by a sover- eign Native American tribe is not subject to state condemnation and that this prin- ciple protects tribal interests in allotments. Unresolved, however, is whether a tribal interest in an allotment—which can be as small as a fraction of 1 percent—should immunize even the nontribal interest in the plot from state condemnation proceed- ings. In other words, should a fractional tribal interest place an entire parcel out of the state’s reach?

This Comment argues that it should. The courts that have attempted to allow condemnations to proceed against partially tribal allotments run into the problem that all ownership interests in an allotment are undivided; each owner holds an undivided share of the whole parcel. This means there is no way to divide the tribal interests from the nontribal ones without effecting some kind of incursion on a tribal land interest without the tribe’s or Congress’s consent, a result that principles of tribal sovereignty squarely reject. This Comment recognizes that Congress’s intent when it passed § 357 was to eliminate tribal landholdings, but it argues that Congress has since changed course such that courts should disregard that original intent. This Comment also concedes that diminishing eminent domain power may lead to holdout problems, though it argues that protecting tribal sovereignty is the more important interest. Consistent with the principle that states may not diminish any tribal sovereignty without Congress’s consent, this Comment concludes that a state utility has multiple avenues for seeking access to a partially tribal allotment, including opportunities for negotiation with the tribe and the federal government. Courts should not permit states to use § 357 unilaterally to divest a nonconsenting tribe from its interest in land.

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