Montana v. Crow Tribe
Annotate this Case
523 U.S. 696 (1998)
OCTOBER TERM, 1997
MONTANA ET AL. v. CROW TRIBE OF INDIANS ET AL.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
No. 96-1829. Argued February 24, 1998-Decided May 18, 1998
In 1904, the Crow Tribe ceded part of its Montana Reservation to the United States for settlement by non-Indians. The United States holds rights to minerals underlying the ceded strip in trust for the Tribe. In 1972, with the approval of the Department of the Interior and pursuant to the Indian Mineral Leasing Act of 1938 (IMLA), Westmoreland Resources, Inc., a non-Indian company, entered into a mining lease with the Tribe for coal underlying the ceded strip. After executing the lease, Westmoreland signed contracts with its customers, four utility companies, allowing it to pass on to the utilities the cost of valid taxes. Westmoreland and the Tribe renegotiated the lease in 1974. The amended lease had an extendable ten-year term, and set some of the highest royalties in the United States. In 1975, Montana imposed a severance tax and a gross proceeds tax on all coal produced in the State, including coal underlying the reservation proper and the ceded strip. Westmoreland paid these taxes without timely pursuit of the procedures Montana law provides for protests and refunds. Some six months after the State imposed its taxes, the Crow Tribal Council adopted its own severance tax. The Department of the Interior approved the Tribe's tax as applied to coal underlying the reservation proper but, because of a limitation in the Tribe's constitution, did not approve as to coal beneath the ceded strip. The Tribe again enacted a tax for coal mined on the ceded strip in 1982, and again the Department rejected the tax.
In 1978, the Tribe brought a federal action for injunctive and declaratory relief against Montana and its counties, alleging that the State's severance and gross proceeds taxes were preempted by the 1M LA and infringed on the Tribe's right to govern itself. The District Court dismissed the complaint. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the Tribe's allegations, if proved, would establish that the IMLA preempted the State's taxes. The Court of Appeals noted, however, that the Tribe had paid none of Westmoreland's taxes and apparently would not be entitled to any refund in the event that the taxes were declared invalid. Crow Tribe v. Montana, 650 F.2d 1104, 1113, n. 13 (Crow I). In 1982, the Tribe and Westmoreland entered into an agreement, with Interior Department approval, under which Westmoreland agreed to pay the Tribe a tax equal to the State's then-existing taxes, less any tax pay-
ments Westmoreland was required to pay to the State and its subdivisions. The agreement achieved, prospectively, the federal permission the Tribe had long sought. It allowed the Tribe to have an approved tax in place so that, if successful in the litigation against Montana, the Tribe could claim for itself any tax amounts Westmoreland would be ordered to pay into the District Court's registry pendente lite. It also enabled Westmoreland to avoid double taxation, and absolved the company from any tax payment obligation to the Tribe for the 1976-1982 period. In 1983, the District Court granted a motion by the Tribe and Westmoreland to deposit severance tax payments into the District Court's registry, pending resolution of the controversy over Montana's taxing authority. In 1987, the court granted the same interim relief for the gross proceeds taxes. Later that year, the United States intervened on behalf of the Tribe to protect its interests as trustee of the coal upon which Montana's taxes were levied. After trial, the District Court determined that federal law did not preempt the State's taxes on coal mined at the ceded strip. The Ninth Circuit again reversed, concluding that the taxes were both preempted by the IMLA and void for interfering with tribal self-governance. Crow Tribe v. Montana, 819 F.2d 895, 903 (Crow II). The Court of Appeals stressed, inter alia, that the State's taxes had at least some negative impact on the marketability of the Tribe's coal. Id., at 900. This Court summarily affirmed. When the case returned to the District Court in 1988, the court ordered distribution of the funds in its registry to the United States as trustee for the Tribe. Subsequently, the United States and the Tribe filed amended complaints against Montana and Big Horn County to recover taxes paid by Westmoreland prior to the 1983 and 1987 orders directing deposits into the court's registry. Neither the Tribe nor the United States requested, as additional or alternate relief, recovery for the Tribe's actual financial losses attributable to the State's taxes.
After trial, the District Court concluded that the disgorgement remedy sought by the Tribe was not appropriate. Key to the court's decision was this Court's holding in Cotton Petroleum Corp. v. New Mexico, 490 U. S. 163, that both State and Tribe may impose severance taxes on on-reservation oil and gas production by a non-Indian lessee. Cotton Petroleum indicated that Montana's taxes on ceded strip coal were invalidated in Crow II not because the State lacked power to tax the coal at all, but because its taxes were "extraordinarily high." 490 U. S., at 186-187, n. 17. The District Court also considered that Westmoreland would not have paid coal taxes to the Tribe before 1983, for Interior Department approval was essential to allow pass-through to the company's customers. Furthermore, under the 1982 lease agreement, the
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