The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of gas retailer Cougar Den Inc., owned by Yakama Native American tribe member Kip Ramsey, stating that the company cannot be assessed state fuel taxes on wholesale fuel brought onto the reservation.
The Yakama Nation and its members are exempt from state cigarette, fuel and sales taxes on its reservation, located in Washington state, according to E&E News.
The conflict began when Washington State Department of Licensing said that Cougar Den must pay the state’s per-gallon tax on fuel delivered from Oregon to the reservation.
The company and the tribe objected, citing a 1855 treaty that prevents the state from restricting tribal members’ ability “to travel upon all public highways.” Cougar Den ships the fuel on public highways and cannot be taxed for that activity, the company said.
But Washington state lawyers argued that the tax applies to Cougar Den’s possession, not transportation, of the fuel, E&E News reports.
The Court’s 5-4 ruling sides with Cougar Den over Washington State Department of Licensing, upholding the treaty that gives the tribe the right to freely travel all highways and bring goods to market.
“In a word, the treaty negotiations and the United States’ representatives’ statements to the Yakamas would have led the Yakamas to understand that the treaty’s protection of the right to travel on the public highways included the right to travel with goods for purposes of trade. We consequently so construe the relevant treaty provision,” Justice Stephen Breyer said in an opinion joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
Justices Neil Gorsuch and Ruth Bader Ginsburg also sided with Cougar Den.
In the dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh, said the tax did not violate the 1855 treaty, and that the other justices interpreted the application of the treaty too broadly.