Muskrat v. United States: Case Summary & Significance

Instructor: Janice Bailey

Janice has taught reading, writing, Microsoft Office 2010, Visio, Project Management. Her Masters of Science is in Applied Criminology with a Business Emphasis

Was this a case or a controversy? Was it The U.S. Supreme Court's right to rule? None of the above! Yet this case is still significant and cited today.

Many people don't realize that the Supreme Court of the United States, or SCOTUS for short, is very limited in its scope and jurisdiction. Most U.S. citizens see SCOTUS as all-powerful, sort of like The Wizard of Oz; and to a certain extent, it can be, but only within the parameters set by The Constitution of The United States.

Cases that come to SCOTUS are selected carefully on the basis of whether or not, once the case is ruled upon, a standard or precedence is set forth and binding for all future cases of litigation. In the case of Muskrat v. U.S., a standard was raised in order to show the American people, in particular Native Americans, what SCOTUS can and cannot do.


When a standard is set, it then becomes historically significant, and that's what happened when Mr. Muskrat took on Uncle Sam. Just like when Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz found out the wizard's power was limited by his human form, Americans, through Muskrat, found out that SCOTUS also has limited power.

Uncle Sam

Case History

Muskrat v. U.S. came about because of a previous case in which Congress had passed legislation to further partition land that had previously been allocated to the Cherokee Indians. The law also prohibited the sale of certain plots of their land. Congress then passed a statute allowing for Native Americans to file suit to test the constitutionality of this law, putting it upon the shoulders of SCOTUS to make a ruling.

Native Americans

Several Native Americans brought their cases before SCOTUS; the one brought by David Muskrat and J. Henry Dick was chosen as a representation. Yet, when it came down to it, SCOTUS refused to rule on the case, stating it was not their function to hold Congress in check, except when there is a true case or controversy presented to them, in accordance with Article III of the United States Constitution.

Although the U.S. was named as a defendant, and a deposit of tribal funds was allocated to the U.S. Treasury to pay both parties' attorneys' fees, no true controversy was made apparent. A true controversy must have opposing litigants with adverse interests, and it's the function of the judiciary to sort out true controversies between battling complainants. To put it simply, Muskrat did not fit the bill. Additionally, SCOTUS contended that it had no veto power over Congress unless a controversy is presented.


Since no controversy was presented, SCOTUS reversed the judgment, and remanded it to the lower court with directions to dismiss the case. SCOTUS ruled that, because the plaintiffs did not present to The Court in the form of a controversy they, in fact, had no case.

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