Supreme Court to decide whether a state can enforce a gasoline tax against Indian tribes

Oklahoma state leaders might be paying close attention later in the month as the U.S. Supreme Court considers the right of a state to enforce a fuels tax on an Indian tribe.

At stake is the case of a tribal gas retailer in Washington state. The state Supreme court ruled that tribal treaties from the 1800s barred Washington state from collecting the tax from Cougar Den Inc, a tribal gas retailer. The company started transporting gasoline in 2013 from Oregon to Washington on public highways and eventually delivering it to the Yakama Nation.

Cougar Den did not obtain a license or pay the tax when the fuel crossed state lines. The company argued that tribal treaty language giving the tribes access to all public highways means they can’t be taxed for doing so. The state court agreed.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the federal appellate court covering Washington state held the Yakama Treaty exempts Yakama members from charges imposed specifically for using the highway, but not from taxes or charges like the one here.

Several states worried about the enforcement of their own tax laws have come out against the state court’s interpretation. Attorneys General for Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming filed friend-of-the-court briefs.

But under the 1855 treaty with the Yakama Nation, the federal government guaranteed that the tribe would have the right to travel upon all public highways. And the Washington Supreme Court relied on the language to make its ruling in support of the Yakama Nation.

The case is scheduled for Oct. 30.