2 minute read

Morton v. Mancari


The ruling established that Native American Indians can be treated differently from other U.S. citizens by the federal government despite antidiscrimination laws. Members of tribes may be considered political rather than racial groups on occasions when the U.S. government bases its actions on long-standing legal responsibilities to protect Native American interests and promote tribal self-government. The Court ruled equal protection under the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause does not apply in such cases. The unique status of Native Americans as a separate people became increasingly unpopular with many Americans raised with the beliefs that all citizens should be treated equally under the law.

Since passage of the 1834 Indian Intercourse and Trade Act, Congress promoted Native American hiring preferences in certain governmental Native American services through a number of additional laws. However, until the 1930s the predominantly non-Indian staff of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) still held substantial control over the lives and destinies of the many tribes it serviced. Congress finally sought to change that situation. To increase Native American participation in BIA operations, Congress recognized that some forms of preferences and exemptions from normal civil service requirements were needed. In sponsoring a bill, one congressman eloquently expressed the need for an Native American preference by stating,

The Indians have not only been thus deprived of civil rights and powers, but they have been largely deprived of the opportunity to enter the more important positions in the service of the very bureau which manages their affairs . . . It should be possible for Indians with the requisite vocational and professional training to enter the service of their own people without the necessity of competing with white applicants for these positions.

In response, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934, a century after the Indian Trade Act. The IRA strengthened tribal governments while continuing the active role of the BIA in a way more responsive to tribal interests. Among other things, the law extended employment preference to qualified Native Americans for BIA jobs. The purpose of the preference, as outlined by Congress was: (1) to give Native Americans a greater participation in their own government; (2) to further the U.S. government's obligation in protecting tribal interests; and (3) to minimize the conflicts of having non-Native Americans administer matters affecting Native American tribal life. Congress was well aware the preference would result in employment disadvantages for non-Native Americans within the bureau. However, this unavoidable effect was considered necessary to allow the gradual replacement of non-Native Americans with Native Americans to further the goal of Native American self-government.

Soon questions of the government's role in protecting Native Americans interests arose. The Court reaffirmed the federal government's responsibility in assisting tribes toward self-government in Board of County Commissioners v. Seber (1943).

In 1964 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, the first major federal law prohibiting discrimination in private employment on the basis of "race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." Since the act primarily targeted private employment discrimination and not the federal government, Congress passed the 1972 Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Act to prohibit discrimination in most areas of federal employment.

Meanwhile, following passage of the IRA, the BIA had implemented the preference with some success. By 1972, the percentage of Native Americans employed in the bureau rose from 34 percent in 1934 to 57 percent. However, success was mostly felt at lower paying positions. To correct this imbalance, the BIA extended the preference in 1972 to promotions within the agency designed to bring more Native Americans into positions of responsibility. This policy was considered a logical extension of the congressional intent of IRA.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Morton v. Mancari - Significance, Preferences And The Fifth Amendment, Native Americans Not Ethnic, Impact