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Washington Supreme Court Ruling Touted As 'Landmark' For Tribal Sovereignty

Harvey Barrison
Flickr -
File photo of the Temple of Justice in Olympia, Washington.

A state Supreme court decision Thursday gives a Washington tribe the right to transport goods and services across state lines without taxation. Attorneys and tribal members said the case is a win on the side of tribal sovereignty.

The Yakama Nation transported fuel across the Oregon-Washington border for sale at gas stations on the tribe’s reservation. They can do that without paying Washington state taxes--under a treaty signed in 1855, and now under the new court ruling.

In 2013, Washington’s Department of Licensing demanded $3.6 million in taxes and fees from a Yakama Nation fuel company, so the two parties went to court.

The court’s decision guarantees the tribe the right to travel and trade freely nationwide.

“What it does is it essentially strengthens the Yakama Nation’s stance that not only existed long ago and is memorialized, but reaffirms it in modern day times,” Yakama Tribal Chairman JoDe Goudy said.

The Yakama Treaty of 1855 won the case, because it includes a unique travel clause that allows for free travel across state and tribal boundaries. The court said the “right to travel” also means businesses on the Yakama Reservation don’t have to pay state taxes.

Tribes are subject to state taxes outside the reservation. Goudy argued state taxation within reservation boundaries would limit the ability to do business “on a level playing field.”

“We’re not sitting back here and reaping vast amount of riches and wealth because of the ability to conduct commerce in the manner that we deem fit,” Goudy said.

Brendan Monahan, an attorney for the tribe, stopped short of calling the case ‘precedent setting.'

“I would certainly call it a landmark case -- an historic ruling -- a historic recognition of the fundamental right to travel and trade guaranteed by the treaty,” Monahan said. “That’s just not a right that has been recognized by the state of Washington before, certainly it was not recognized or respected by the state’s Attorney General, but it has now been confirmed by the highest court in the state of Washington.”

Only two other tribal treaties in the Northwest expressly outline the right to travel. Monahan said whether those rights extend beyond the Yakama Nation would be based on individual treaties.