WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court tomorrow is scheduled to hear arguments in a case challenging the ability of states to tax property on Indian reservations without express permission from Congress.
The case, Yakima County, Wash. v. Confederated Tribes and Bands of Yakima Nation, gives the court a chance to clear up uncertainties springing from apparently contradictory federal laws.
In 1887, Congress passed legislation designed to eliminate Indian reservations and help integrate Indians into society at large. Under the law, Indians gradually were to be subject to all laws applicable in their state of residence.
But in 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which shifted federal policy toward encouraging reservations and tribal self-government. The Supreme Court ruled in a 1976 case, Moe v. Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, that states could not tax the personal property of tribal members living on Indian reservations.
The federal district court reviewing the Yakima County case cited the Moe ruling in granting an injunction against the tax in favor of the Yakima Nation. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with the district court that state levies on reservation members require explicit congressional approval. The appeals court concluded, however, that the 1887 law provided permission to tax lands owned by Indian interests, even if on a reservation.
The Yakima County case has drawn active interest from local, state, and the federal governments.
In a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the State and Local Legal Center, municipalities argue that the 1887 law, the General Allotment Act, clearly allows taxation of reservation lands owned by Indian tribes or their members.
Under the law, once the federal government has turned over reservation land to tribal members, "all restrictions as to sale, incumbrance, or taxation of said land shall be removed." In general, the federal government holds reservation lands in trust for Indians, but has given title to portions of reservations to Indian tribes and their members.
But the federal government is siding with the Yakima Nation. "Moe controls this case and requires rejection of the county's efforts to tax Indian-owned land on the Yakima Nation," the government said in a brief filed by Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr.
The State and Local Legal Center counters that the Moe decision "involved taxation of cigarette sales and the ownership of personal property, rather than taxation of land."
The court's decision in the dispute, expected by next spring, likely will hinge on the court's determination of what Congress intended when it passed the general allotment and Indian reorganization laws.
In a 1980 case, Washington v. Confederated Tribes of Colville Indian Reservation, now-Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote that in cases challenging taxation of Indians, "the question is only one of congressional intent. Either Congress intended to preempt the state taxing authority or it did not."