County of Yakima v. Confederated Tribes and Bands of Yakima Nation
502 U.S. 251 (1992)

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No. 90-408. Argued November 5, 1991-Decided January 14, 1992*

Yakima County, Washington, imposes an ad valorem levy on taxable real property within its jurisdiction and an excise tax on sales of such land. The county proceeded to foreclose on various properties for which these taxes were past due, including certain fee-patented lands held by the Yakima Indian Nation or its members on the Tribe's reservation within the county. Contending that federal law prohibited the imposition or collection of the taxes on such lands, the Tribe filed suit for declaratory and injunctive relief and was awarded summary judgment by the District Court. The Court of Appeals agreed that the excise tax was impermissible, but held that the ad valorem tax would be impermissible only if it would have a "'demonstrably serious'" impact on the Tribe's "'political integrity, economic security or ... health and welfare'" (quoting Brendale v. Confederated Tribes and Bands of Yakima Nation, 492 U. S. 408, 431 (opinion of WHITE, J.)), and remanded to the District Court for that determination.

Held: The Indian General Allotment Act of 1887 permits Yakima County to impose an ad valorem tax on reservation land patented in fee pursuant to the Act and owned by reservation Indians or the Yakima Indian Nation itself, but does not allow the county to enforce its excise tax on sales of such land. Pp. 257-270.

(a) As the Court held in Goudy v. Meath, 203 U. S. 146, 149, the Indian General Allotment Act authorizes taxation of fee-patented land. This determination was explicitly confirmed in a 1906 amendment to the Act, known as the Burke Act, which includes a proviso authorizing the Secretary of the Interior, "whenever ... satisfied that any [Indian] allottee is competent ... [,] to ... issu[e] to such allottee a patent in fee simple," and provides that "thereafter all restrictions as to ... taxation of said land shall be removed." (Emphasis added.) Thus, the Indian General Allotment Act contains the unmistakably clear expression of intent that

*Together with No. 90-577, Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakima Indian Nation v. County of Yakima et al., also on certiorari to the same court.



is necessary to authorize state taxation of Indian lands. See, e. g., Montana v. Blackfeet Tribe, 471 U. S. 759,765. The contention of the Tribe and the United States that this explicit statutory conferral of taxing power has been repudiated by subsequent Indian legislation rests upon a misunderstanding of this Court's precedents, particularly Moe v. Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, 425 U. S. 463, and a misperception of the structure of the Indian General Allotment Act. pp. 257-266.

(b) Because, under state law, liability for the ad valorem tax flows exclusively from ownership of realty on the annual assessment date, and the tax creates a burden on the property alone, this tax constitutes "taxation of ... land" within the meaning of the Indian General Allotment Act, and is therefore prima facie valid. Nevertheless, Brendale, supra, and its reasoning are inapplicable to the present cases, which involve an asserted restriction on a State's congressionally conferred powers over Indians rather than a proposed extension of a tribe's inherent powers over the conduct of non-Indians on reservation fee lands. Moreover, application of a balancing test under Brendale would contravene the per se approach traditionally followed by this Court in the area of state taxation of tribes and tribal members, under which taxation is categorically allowed or disallowed, as appropriate, depending exclusively upon whether it has in fact been authorized by Congress. Pp. 266-268.

(c) However, the excise tax on sales of fee-patented reservation land cannot be sustained. The Indian General Allotment Act explicitly authorizes only "taxation of ... land," not "taxation with respect to land," "taxation of transactions involving land," or "taxation based on the value of land." Because it is eminently reasonable to interpret that language as not including a tax upon the activity of selling real estate, this Court's cases require that that interpretation be applied for the benefit of the Tribe. See, e. g., Blackfeet Tribe, supra, at 766. Pp. 268-270.

(d) The factual question whether the parcels at issue were patented under the Indian General Allotment Act or some other federal allotment statute, and the legal question whether it makes any difference, are left for resolution on remand. P. 270.

903 F.2d 1207, affirmed and remanded.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and WHITE, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 270.

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