Oklahoma Tax Comm'n v. Chickasaw Nation
Annotate this Case
515 U.S. 450 (1995)
OCTOBER TERM, 1994
OKLAHOMA TAX COMMISSION v. CHICKASAW NATION
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT
No.94-771. Argued April 24, 1995-Decided June 14, 1995
Respondent Chickasaw Nation (Tribe) filed this action to stop Oklahoma from enforcing several state taxes against the Tribe and its members. Pertinent here, the District Court held for the State on the motor fuels tax question, and largely for the Tribe on the income tax issue. The Court of Appeals ruled for the Tribe and its members on both issues, determining: (1) that, without congressional authorization, the State could not impose a motor fuels tax on fuel sold by the Tribe at its retail stores on tribal trust land; and (2) that the State could not tax the wages of tribal members employed by the Tribe, even if they reside outside Indian country.
1. Oklahoma may not apply its motor fuels tax, as currently designed, to fuel sold by the Tribe in Indian country. Pp. 455-462.
(a) The Court declines to address the State's argument, raised for the first time in its brief on the merits, that the Hayden-Cartwright Act expressly authorizes States to tax motor fuel sales on Indian reservations. Pp.456-457.
(b) When a State attempts to levy a tax directly on Indian tribes or their members inside Indian country, the proper approach is not, as the State contends, to weigh the relevant state and tribal interests. Rather, a more categorical approach should be employed: Absent clear congressional authorization, a State is without power to tax reservation lands and reservation Indians. The initial and frequently dispositive question in Indian tax cases, therefore, is who bears the legal incidence of the tax, for if it is a tribe or tribal members inside Indian country, the tax cannot be enforced absent federal legislation permitting the impost. The inquiry proper in this case is whether the fuels tax rests on the Tribe as retailer, or on the wholesaler who sells to the Tribe or the consumer who buys from the Tribe. Judicial focus on legal incidence accords due deference to Congress' lead role in evaluating state taxation as it bears on Indian tribes and tribal members. A "legal incidence" test, furthermore, provides a reasonably bright-line standard accommodating the reality that tax administration requires predictability. And
a State unable to enforce its tax because the legal incidence falls on tribes or on Indians within Indian country, generally is free to amend its law to shift the tax's legal incidence. Pp. 457-460.
(c) The Court of Appeals' ruling that the fuels tax's legal incidence rests on the retailer is reasonable. The state legislation does not expressly identify who bears the tax's legal incidence. Nor does it contain a provision requiring that the tax be passed on to consumers. In the absence of such dispositive language, the question is one of fair interpretation of the taxing statute as written and applied. In this case, the fuels tax law's language and structure indicate that the tax is imposed on fuel retailers. Pp.461-462.
2. Oklahoma may tax the income of tribal members who work for the Tribe but reside in the State outside Indian country. The Court of Appeals' holding to the contrary conflicts with the well-established principle of interstate and international taxation that a jurisdiction may tax all the income of its residents, even income earned outside the taxing jurisdiction. The exception that the Tribe would carve out of the State's taxing authority gains no support from the rule that Indians and tribes are generally immune from state taxation, as this principle does not operate outside Indian country. In addition, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which guarantees the Tribe and its members that "no Territory or State shall ever have a right to pass laws for the [Tribe's] government," provides only for the Tribe's sovereignty within Indian country and does not confer super-sovereign authority to interfere with another jurisdiction's sovereign right to tax income, from all sources, of those who choose to live within that jurisdiction's limits. Nor can the Treaty be read to incorporate the repudiated doctrine that an income tax imposed on government employees should be treated as a tax on the government. The Treaty's signatories likely gave no thought to a State's authority to tax income of tribal members living in the State's domain, since the Treaty's purpose was to move the Tribe to unsettled land not then within a State. Moreover, if that doctrine were to apply, it would require exemption for nonmember as well as tribal member employees of the Tribe. Pp. 462-467.
31 F.3d 964, affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.
GINSBURG, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court with respect to Parts I and II, and the opinion of the Court with respect to Part III, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. BREYER, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and SOUTER, JJ., joined, post, p. 468.