Tuesday, March 19, 2019
The Supreme Court ruled today that a treaty between the United States and the Yakama Nation preempts Washington's tax on "motor vehicle fuel importer[s]" who bring fuel into the state by "ground transportation." The ruling in Washington State Dept. of Licensing v. Cougar Den, Inc. means that Washington can't apply its tax to Yakama Nation members who import fuel.
The case pits a provision of the treaty against the state tax. The treaty provision reserves Yakamas' "right, in common with citizens of the United States, to travel upon all public highways," while Washington taxes "the importation of fuel, which is the transportation of fuel." The Court held, 5-4, that the treaty provision preempts the state tax. (Justice Gorsuch joined the progressives; the other four conservatives dissented.)
Justice Breyer wrote for a plurality that included Justices Sotomayor and Kagan. As to the tax, he wrote that it applies to transportation of fuel, and not just the possession of fuel, and thus implicated the treaty's right to travel. As to the treaty, he said that the the language "in common with citizens of the United States" was more than just an equality clause. (Mere equality would have meant only that Yakamas enjoyed the same right to travel as U.S. citizens, and not an especial right to travel to trade goods.) Justice Breyer wrote that prior Court decisions interpreting similar clauses in the treaty gave it broader sweep, and that this was based on the Yakamas' understanding of the treaty when it was signed. Moreover, he said that "the historical record adopted by the agency and the courts below indicates that the right to travel includes a right to travel with goods for sale or distribution." Finally, he wrote that imposing a tax on "traveling with certain goods burdens that travel." Putting the these points together, he concluded that the treaty provision preempts the state tax.
Justice Gorsuch wrote separately, joined by Justice Ginsburg, in a somewhat more muscular opinion--and one even more overtly favoring the Yakamas. In addition to making points similar to Justice Breyer's, he pointed out that the state court relied on factual findings from an earlier case as to the Yakamas' understanding of the treaty (which was broader than mere equality), and ruled that Washington was estopped from challenging those findings. He said that the findings were binding on the Court as well. Justice Gorsuch ended with this:
Really, this case just tells an old and familiar story. The State of Washington included millions of acres that the Yakamas ceded to the United States under significant pressure. In return, the government supplied a handful of modest promises. The State is now dissatisfied with the consequences of one of those promises. It is a new day, and now it wants more. But today and to its credit, the Court holds the parties to the terms of their deal. It is the least we can do.
Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, and Kavanaugh, dissented. He argued that the state tax applied to possession of fuel, not to transportation, and therefore didn't implicate the treaty's right to travel at all. Justice Kavanaugh separately dissented, joined by Justice Thomas. He argued that the treaty's plain language only protected an equal right to travel, not an especial right to travel.