A Judicial Framework for Applying Supreme Court Jurisprudence to the State Income Taxation of Indian Traders by Scott Taylor (St. Thomas)

Scott Taylor: A Judicial Framework for Applying Supreme Court Jurisprudence to the State Income Taxation of Indian Trader

From the abstract:

State income taxation of Indian traders is a legal issue that the United States Supreme Court is likely to address within the next five years. This article provides a theoretical framework for resolution of the issue by considering the political framework of the United States Constitution and the historical role that federally recognized Indian tribes have played within the American legal system. As the cases work their way through the state judicial systems, this article will provide an important theoretical starting point for the lawyers and judges dealing with the question. And when the United States Supreme Court finally addresses the issue, the Court will be able to consider the usefulness of my framework.

Virtually everyone who sells goods and services to one of the more than 560 federally recognized Indian tribes (or to their on-reservation members) is an Indian trader. Most Indian traders are in states that have an income tax. Although the United States Supreme Court has held that these sales are exempt from states sales taxes, no federal case has yet answered the income tax question. Tribes are interested in the issue because the outcome will affect their ability to tax Indian traders. States are interested because it will affect their tax revenue. Indian traders are interested because it will affect the state income taxes they pay.

The theoretical framework that I propose builds on some of the Supreme Court jurisprudence on federal Indian law. My framework looks at the structure of Congress, the inclusion of states, and the exclusion of tribes. Given Congress’ power over Indian affairs, the Supreme Court should decide cases in favor of the tribal interest whenever Congress has spoken with less than clarity. If states do not like the judicial answer, they can go to Congress and seek a legislative remedy, as they did with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in the 1980s.

Congress has regulated Indian traders for over 200 years but has never stated whether states can tax them. Given the presence of this federal regulation, the United States Supreme Court in the 1960s decided that states could not impose their sales taxes on Indian traders. In a line of subsequent Supreme Court cases, the federal preemption logic has remained largely unchanged. This same logic, when viewed in light of Congress’ role in Indian affairs and the political exclusion of tribes from Congress, leads to the conclusion that Indian traders should be exempt from state income taxes.

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