FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
U.S. SUPREME COURT SAYS NO TO TRIBAL TAX
Local organization plays important role in ruling.
On May 29, 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 9-0 decision, that a tax imposed by the Navaho Indian Tribe on a hotel operating within the borders of the tribe’s reservation was invalid. The case, Atkinson Trading Company v. Shirley, stems from an appeal by the hotel owner, Atkinson Trading Company, to reverse a decision from the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled the tribe had the legal power to impose the tax.
The issue was whether or not an Indian tribe could impose a tax on a non-member of the tribe, on land that is privately owned in fee simple. The Navaho Tribe enacted a hotel occupancy tax on all such businesses operating within the exterior boundaries of their reservation. Atkinson Trading Co. refused to collect the tax because they believed that the tribe lacked jurisdiction on private property. The Navaho Reservation, like most Indian reservations across the country, is to a varying degree, a mix of non-Indian owned fee land, Indian owned fee land, tribally owned fee land and land held in trust by the United States for the tribe. Thus, as of 1990, about half the residents living on Indian reservations in the U.S. are not members of the tribe.
Proper Economic Resource Management (PERM) is a Minnesota based non-profit conservation club dedicated to balanced solutions to natural resource management issues. As Native American Indian tribes across the country seek to assert and expand the scope of their governmental powers, they are increasingly infringing upon the rights of individual citizens, and the powers of state and local governments to enforce environmental regulations. PERM filed a brief in the case at the Supreme Court in support of Atkinson Trading Co. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who wrote the Court’s opinion, followed much of the line of reasoning PERM advanced and adopted almost all the arguments put forth in its brief to the Court. For example, PERM argued that Indian tribes have only limited sovereignty with authority over tribal members on tribal land. PERM wrote in its brief, “…the ultimate sovereign, the people of the United States, cannot be made subject to regulation by tribal governments which do not, and cannot by their nature, provide non-members the fundamental rights guaranteed to the people of the united States by the U.S. Constitution. The Court said, “Only full territorial sovereigns enjoy the ‘power to enforce laws against all who come within the sovereign territory, whether citizens or aliens,’ and Indian tribes ‘can no longer be described as sovereigns in this sense.”
According to Mark Rotz, spokesman for PERM, “Jurisdictional disputes on issues of environmental regulation, taxation and zoning authority are popping up across Minnesota and the nation for citizens living on or near former or existing Indian reservations. The power to tax is the power to regulate. This was an important victory for all citizens. The Supreme Court clearly established the narrow scope of tribal powers as defined by the Constitution, treaties and Acts of Congress. Now it is up to state and local government to acknowledge the limited scope of tribal powers and protect the rights of non-tribal members living on reservations.”