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Quinault Indian Nation v. Grays Harbor County

ELR Citation: 33 ELR 20097
Nos. No. 01-35219, 310 F.3d 645/(9th Cir., 11/08/2002)

The court reverses a district court decision holding that a Washington county tax imposed against a Native American tribe after it transferred forest land to the United States to hold in trust for the tribe was a permissible taxation of land under the Indian General Allotment Act of 1887. Under Washington state’s tax law, land classified for forest use is assigned a reduced property valuation for property tax purposes. Under certain circumstances, the sale or transfer of forest use land deprives the property of its favorable tax status and triggers the imposition of a tax on the seller-transferor. Believing that the county lacked federal congressional authority to levy the tax, the tribe sought declaratory and injunctive relief from the tax in district court. The county argued that the tax fell within the scope of permissible state taxation of a Native American tribe. The district court agreed and granted summary judgment in favor of the county. The court first holds, however, that the tax does not fall within the limited scope of permissible taxation allowed under the Indian General Allotment Act and County of Yakima v. Confederated Tribes & Bands of the Yakima Indian Nation, 502 U.S. 251 (1992). The U.S. Congress' intention to permit state taxation of Native American land does not unambiguously encompass the unique taxation scheme in this case. Although the tax scheme is unique, the essence of this tax is that it is triggered by a specific event—a property transfer. Thus, it resembles the excise tax rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in County of Yakima. Only by exercising its privilege to transfer this land to an owner of its choice does the tribe incur any tax. The fact that the tax is triggered by the property owner’s decision represents the quintessential example of an excise tax. Moreover, the method of calculation and collection does not transform the tax into a permissible one. The court, therefore, reverses the district court decision.

Counsel for Plaintiff
Richard Reich
Office of the Reservation Attorney
Quinault Indian Nation
3010 77th Ave. SE, Mercer Island WA 98040
(206) 236-1406

Counsel for Defendant
Jennifer L. Wieland
Grays Harbor County Prosecutor’s Office
Court House, Montesano WA 98563
(360) 249-3951