WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to decide whether states may impose income taxes and vehicle registration fees on members of Indian tribes.
In a case that pits the Oklahoma Tax Commission against the Sac and Fox Nation, the justices are being asked to review a federal appeals court ruling that enjoins the state from enforcing its income and motor vehicle taxes against tribal members.
The Supreme Court's justice did not indicate yesterday when they would hear arguments in the case. But the court's December argument calendar already has been set, meaning that the earliest the Oklahoma tax case can be heard is in January or February.
At issue in the case is whether Oklahoma's tax authorities can levy income taxes against tribal members who hold tribal jobs or require payment of motor vehicle taxes for cars and trucks that are registered and tagged by the tribe.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, affirming a 1991 ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, decided on June 16 that tribal members employed in any fashion by the tribe are not subject to the state income tax.
The appeals court also ruled that tribal members who register their motor vehicles with the tribe and who buy tribal license tags are exempt from Oklahoma vehicle taxes and registration fees.
However, the lower federal courts also held that Oklahoma was entitled to tax non-tribal members who worked for the tribe and to require payment of all applicable state vehicle taxes by non-tribal car and truck owners. That ruling, which was appealed by the Sac and Fox Nation, was left intact by the Supreme Court yesterday.
In the case now before the justices, the Oklahoma Tax Commission contends that the appeals court misconstrued Supreme Court precedent to the detriment of the state, and failed to take into account congressional action designed to help integrate Indians into general society.
The Tax Commission conceded in briefs filed with the court that some precedents indicate that tribal members who work and live on tribal lands should enjoy exemption from state taxation. But in the case of the Sac and Fox Nation, the commission asserted, the issue is more complicated because the tribe's land is scattered throughout an area that is otherwise within the state's jurisdiction.
Consequently, a tribal member may work on native lands, but not necessarily live there. Moreover, most tribal employees at some time during the day must "pull their cars out of the tribal parking lot and on to state jurisdiction streets," the Tax Commission claimed.
According to the commission, there is no federal statute that pre-empts the state taxes and no reason to fear that tribal self-government is infringed upon when tribal members are taxed on their income.
In other action yesterday, the justices agreed to grant an additional 10 minutes for oral argument in a dispute over unclaimed interest and dividends on bonds and stocks. The case, Delaware v. New York, involves all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
In the case, the justices will have to decide whether to accept recommendations made by a court-appointed special master, who has concluded that unclaimed distributions of municipal bonds must be turned over to the state in which the municipality is located.
The dispute began in 1988, when Delaware asked the court to decide whether it should be allowed to recover the unclaimed money held by brokerage firms incorporated in Delaware but operating primarily in New York.
The court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case on Dec. 9.