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Law School Case Brief

White Mountain Apache Tribe v. Bracker - 448 U.S. 136, 100 S. Ct. 2578 (1980)


The exercise of state regulatory authority may be preempted by federal law and may unlawfully infringe on the right of reservation Indians to make their own laws and be ruled by them. These two barriers are independent because either, standing alone, can be a sufficient basis for holding state law inapplicable to activity undertaken on the reservation or by tribal members. 


Pursuant to a contract with an organization of petitioner White Mountain Apache Tribe, petitioner Pinetop Logging Co. (Pinetop), a non-Indian enterprise authorized to do business in Arizona, felled tribal timber on the Fort Apache Reservation and transported it to the tribal organization's sawmill. Pinetop's activities were performed solely on the reservation. Respondents, state agencies and members thereof, sought to impose on Pinetop Arizona's motor carrier license tax, which is assessed on the basis of the carrier's gross receipts, and its use fuel tax, which is assessed on the basis of diesel fuel used to propel a motor vehicle on any highway within the State. Pinetop paid the taxes under protest and then brought suit in state court, asserting that under federal law the taxes could not lawfully be imposed on logging activities conducted exclusively within the reservation or on hauling activities on Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and tribal roads. The trial court awarded summary judgment to respondents, which the Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed in pertinent part, rejecting Pinetop's pre-emption claim. Pinetop filed a petition for certiorari review.


Were the motor carrier and use fuel taxes under Arizona law preempted by federal law?




The United States Supreme Court held that the taxes were prohibited because they were preempted by federal law. Congress had broad power under the Commerce Clause to regulate tribal affairs, and these regulations were so pervasive that further regulatory burdens by the State were precluded.

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