Federal trust doctrine first described by Supreme Court

In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, and in the 1832 decision of Worcester v. Georgia, Chief Justice John C. Marshall articulated the roots of the federal trust doctrine and affirmed that Indian affairs was the province of federal rather than state regulation. In Cherokee Nation, an original action in the Supreme Court, the Tribe sought to enjoin Georgia from taking tribal land and imposing burdensome regulations on the Tribe. Chief Justice Marshall termed tribes "domestic dependent nations," with the federal/tribal relationship resembling "that of a ward to his guardian." The Court, ultimately, held that it lacked jurisdiction to hear an original action brought by a tribe.

In 1832, the Court revisited Georgia's attempt to control the Tribe in Worcester v. Georgia. Worcester, a minister and federal postmaster, and another non-Indian challenged their conviction in the Georgia courts for unlawfully residing on the Cherokee Reservation without a state license. The Court invalidated the state law and confirmed the Nation's sovereign rights under various treaties, including the right of self-governance and the right to occupy its own territory to the exclusion of the citizens of Georgia and of Georgia laws. According to Chief Justice Marshall, the "Cherokee nation . . . is a distinct community, occupying its own territory, . . . in which the laws of Georgia can have no force . . . ." The Court described Georgia's attempts to regulate the Cherokee as "interfere[ing] forcibly with the relations established between the United States and the Cherokee nation, the regulation of which, according to settled principles of our constitution, are committed exclusively to the government of the union."

Updated May 14, 2015