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U.S. Supreme Court Hears Arguments In ‘Landmark’ Yakama Nation Gas Tax Case

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Whether a Northwest Native tribe can legally transport goods and services across state lines is at the heart of arguments that will be presented to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday.

In 1855, the Yakama Nation signed a treaty with the United States that expressly allows for free travel across state and tribal boundaries. This clause convinced the Yakama Nation that the owner of the Cougar Den gas station on the Yakama Reservation is legally allowed to transport gasoline from Oregon and sell it on the reservation without paying state taxes. In March, the Washington state Supreme Court agreed.

But Washington state’s Department of Licensing still disagrees. In 2013, the Department demanded $3.6 million dollars in taxes and fees from the Cougar Den’s owner. Last summer, the Department petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case.

In a brief, U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco wrote that the travel clause in question does not exempt members of the Yakama Nation from paying fuel taxes. He says doing so could result in “a significant loss of tax revenue for the State.” I

“… It is not immediately clear under that court’s interpretation that the Washington Legislature could revise the statute in a way that would enable the State to collect an excise tax on motor fuel imported into Washington from another State before it arrives at the Tribe’s reservation,” Francisco wrote on behalf of the Justice Department.

The Supreme Court agreedto review the case in May.

Yakama Nation defense attorneyshave called it a ‘landmark case,’ but they fall short of calling it ‘precedent setting.’ Only a handful of treaties between tribes and the federal governments include a travel clause.