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A state law that burdens a treaty-protected right is preempted by the 1855 treaty between the United States and the Yakama Nation. The treaty protects the Yakamas’ right to travel on the public highway with goods for sale. The Washington statute that taxes fuel importers who travel by public highway taxes the Yakamas for traveling with fuel by public highway. For these three reasons, Washington’s fuel tax cannot lawfully be assessed against fuel importers who are members of the Yakama Nation.
The State of Washington was taxing “motor vehicle fuel importers” bringing large quantities of fuel into the State by “ground transportation.” Wash. Rev. Code §§82.36.010(4), (12), (16). Respondent Cougar Den, Inc., a wholesale fuel importer owned by a member of the Yakama Nation, was importing fuel from Oregon over Washington's public highways to the Yakama Reservation to sell to Yakama-owned retail gas stations located within the reservation. In 2013, the Washington State Department of Licensing assessed Cougar Den $3.6 million in taxes, penalties, and licensing fees for importing motor vehicle fuel into the State. Cougar Den appealed, arguing that the Washington tax, as applied to its activities, was pre-empted by an 1855 treaty between the United States and the Yakama Nation that, among other things, reserved the Yakamas' right, in common with citizens of the United States, to travel upon all public highways. A Washington Superior Court held that the tax was pre-empted, and the Washington Supreme Court affirmed. Certiorari was granted.
Was the Washington tax pre-empted by an 1855 treaty between the United States and the Yakama Nation?
The judgment of the Supreme Court of Washington was affirmed. The court noted that an 1855 treaty between the United States and the Yakama Nation forbade the State of Washington to impose a motor vehicle fuel tax upon fuel importers who were members of the Yakama Nation. The 1855 treaty protected the right to travel on the public highway with goods for sale. However, as the court noted, the Washington fuel tax acted upon the Indians as a charge for exercising the very right their ancestors intended to reserve. Therefore, Washington’s fuel tax could not lawfully be assessed against respondent, a wholesale fuel importer owned by a member of the Yakama Nation.