Davis v. United States (amicus) Historic Case

At a Glance

Date Filed: 

May 21, 2004

Case Description 

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court on May 21, 2004, urging the Court to grant a writ of certiorari and to review the decision of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Davis v. United States.

Davis v. United States challenged the distribution of some $56 million provided by the federal government in 1976 in settlement of claims for lands lost by tribal members in the 1820s. The tribal council determined not to share the millions of dollars that the tribe was awarded and did so in a blatant conspiracy with the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. CCR’s amicus brief urged the Supreme Court to pierce the veil of tribal sovereign immunity which protects such discriminatory actions by federal officials from the oversight of the federal courts.

The Seminoles are comprised of different separatists, refugees, Native and African American groups, and many runaway slaves from nearby southern states. Unfortunately, the modern history of the tribe has been one of unrelenting racial discrimination against the Estelusti people, which are “persons of African descent and blood.” This was made clear when the district court found that federal officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs had conspired with the tribal government to slip past Congress a plan for distributing the funds to groups excluding the Estelusti. 

However, the Court of Appeals held that since the tribe was an "indispensable party" (under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 19) to Davis' lawsuit against the federal government defendants, the suit could not proceed. This ruling essentially means that sovereign immunity shields Tribal governments (and Bureau of Indian Affairs officials who conspire with them) from liability for the sorts of discrimination that are prohibited to state governments under the Fourteenth Amendment. CCR's amicus brief argues that this violates the intent of Congress in the 1866 treaty; that it abdicates the fiduciary duty of the federal government towards tribal members; and that the tribal government's interest in racially discriminating against its Black members is not a legitimate tribal interest that might be prejudiced by the tribe's absence from the litigation under Rule 19.