Court Questions Local Control versus Native American Sovereignty

By Shafroth, Frank | Nation's Cities Weekly, December 22, 1997 | Go to article overview

Court Questions Local Control versus Native American Sovereignty


Shafroth, Frank, Nation's Cities Weekly


The U.S. Supreme Court opened key local control issues during oral arguments last week in a Native American tax case that state and local officials fear could preempt their jurisdiction. The case involves the authority of a Native American tribe to levy taxes outside a reservation after the federal government has abolished the reservation. It raises issues with regard to what authority is retained over the land. Local and state authority matter because cities and states cannot tax tribal land, where the growing number of casinos and gambling halls have significant revenue and public safety implications.

The key issue in the case, Alaska et al. v. Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, et al., is whether the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act terminated the tribe's sovereignty over the village land, or whether the land remained Indian country -- supervised by the federal government and thus exempt from state and local jurisdiction.

During oral argument, the justices asked the attorneys what different powers the tribe would have if it incorporated as a municipality, whether Congress can take back jurisdiction over lands against the will of the sate if the landowner is willing, and what the federal government's relationship to the tribe is. The answers, when the court reaches it decision, are likely to have widespread implications for cities in many other states.

NLC and the State and Local Legal Center have filed an amicus brief with the court on behalf of the State of Alaska seeking to overturn an appeals court decision permitting the tribe to levy a business activity tax on activities not occurring on a reservation. …

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