South Dakota Supreme Court Decides Indian Law Jurisdiction Case

On March 11, 2015 the South Dakota Supreme Court declined subject matter jurisdiction over a challenge to transfer trust land in Estate of Ducheneaux.

Wayne Ducheneaux was an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and a lifelong resident of Tripp County, South Dakota. During the end of his life, he suffered from various adverse medical conditions. A guardian was appointed to assist in medical decisions due to miscommunication amongst the three daughters who held power of attorney for their father. After the appointment of the guardian, Decheneaux's daughter Dawn Daughters (power of attorney) and his son Douglas Ducheneaux (guardian) made all the decisions regarding his medical conditions. CPA Gary Fenenga was appointed as Ducheneaux's conservator. Ducheneaux passed away on November 18, 2011. 

Before his passing, Ducheneaux transferred three quarters of land located in Tripp County, which lies in the diminished portion of the original Rosebud Indian Reservation. One quarter was transferred to Douglas Ducheneaux before Douglas' appointment as guardian. The other two parcels are held in trust by the United States for the benefit of Ducheneaux. In November 2011, the conservator filed an action against Douglas Ducheneaux and Dawn Daughters seeking, among other things, to recover the transferred parcels. The Estate introduced testimony that Ducheneaux was not competent to make important decisions at the time he transferred land. The Estate moved for partial summary judgment and requested that the circuit court find that Douglas Ducheneaux did not have, and never had, an interest in the transferred parcels. The Circuit Courtt denied the Estate’s request, determined that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the parcels held in trust by the United States, and dismissed the action.

The Estate appealed the Circuit Court’s decision and argued, “because the circuit court had personal jurisdiction over [Douglas] Ducheneaux, the circuit court could have compelled [him] to ‘make application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to return the two quarters of trust land to the estate.’” The issue before the Supreme Court was “whether the circuit court possessed the equitable power to compel Douglas Ducheneaux to make application to the Secretary of the Interior for the transfer of Indian trust property to the Estate.”  

In the end, the Supreme Court agreed with the Circuit Court and affirmed that there was a lack of subject matter jurisdiction for two main reasons. First, as a matter of state law, South Dakota’s Constitution “expressly acknowledges the supremacy of the federal government in matters pertaining to Indian lands.” Second, as a matter of federal law, federal legislation has preempted state courts from exercising equitable power over Indian trust land with a clear barrier to state jurisdiction. In addition, the United States Supreme Court has held “a decree as to the right of possession would . . . interfere with the title or trust interest of the Untied States.” Therefore, the Supreme Court affirmed the denial of lack of subject matter jurisdiction because a trial would adjudicate the right to possession of land held in trust by the United States.