Stokes Lawrence Tribal Client Wins Landmark Case at U.S. Supreme Court

Mar 19, 2019   Print PDF

Related Practices: American Indian Law and Litigation

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling on Tuesday in favor of Yakama Nation treaty rights. The Court agreed with the Washington Supreme Court that the Treaty of 1855 preserved Yakama Nation members’ right to travel on the public highways while carrying goods to market. In the treaty negotiated with the United States, the Yakama people gave up millions of acres (90% of their land) to protect the right to travel. Members of the Yakama Nation have exercised this right for generations.

Stokes Lawrence Velikanje Moore & Shore client Cougar Den is a fuel wholesaler that has been importing fuel from Oregon since 2013. The company sells fuel to other businesses owned by tribal members. In 2014, the Washington state Department of Licensing began issuing Cougar Den tax assessments for the imported gasoline, claiming the company owed $20 million in back taxes and penalties. SLVMS attorneys argued that the Treaty of 1855 protects tribal members’ rights to travel freely, including when bringing goods to market.

At an earlier stage, the Washington Supreme Court joined all other independent courts to have considered the issue, finding in favor of our firm’s client and striking down millions of dollars in taxes and penalties that the state sought to impose on Cougar Den. The Attorney General then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which again ruled in favor of our client.

“The courts have previously told the state that it cannot tax on-reservation sales, and it cannot place the burden of these taxes on reservation. But the treaty also exempts the Yakama from paying import taxes which burden their right to travel,” noted Mat Harrington, who successfully argued this case before the Washington Supreme Court. “In today’s ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court honored the solemn promises made by the U.S. government.”

The SLVMS team working on this case included Mat, Brendan Monahan, Lance Pelletier and Jr Cuevas.

Mat Harrington Brendan Monahan Lance Pelletier Jr Cuevas
Cuevas, Jr.