Topeka The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case pitting the state of Kansas versus the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in a dispute that could have national impact on the sovereignty of Indian tribes.
The disagreement is over whether Kansas can impose state taxes on fuel sold at a filling station owned by the Prairie Band Potawatomi near the tribe's casino in Jackson County.
Kansas has erected "a Berlin Wall" around the Prairie Band Potawatomi, said Zachariah Pahmahmie, tribal council chairman.
"There are strong tribal and federal interests that outweigh the state interests, and the state is in any event discriminating against Indian commerce," Pahmahmie said Monday.
Kansas has argued that it can assess the state tax, or that at the least laws are vague on the issue.
"Federal courts have ruled that we can tax fuel delivered to certain Indian reservations but not to others," Secretary of Revenue Joan Wagnon said. "The court's decision in this case will have nationwide significance and benefit both the states and the tribes by providing much-needed guidance and clarity in this area of the law."
Thirteen other states have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. Several other tribes have filed "friend of the court" briefs on behalf of the Potawatomi.
Legal briefs in the case are due before the Supreme Court in mid-April.
Kansas won the first round of the dispute before a district court in Topeka, but the tribe won on appeal before a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The appeals court ruled that the interests of the tribe to collect its own fuel taxes to pay for improvements on the reservation -- and the interests of the federal government to promote tribal development -- outweighed the state's interests to raise revenue.
The case pivots on the question of whether the state can asses taxes on fuel supplied to an Indian tribe by a nonIndian distributor.
The filling station was built by the Potawatomi near Harrah's Prairie Band Casino to serve customers.
The state sought to assess its fuel tax on the tribe's fuel, and the tribe sought a court order to stop the state, saying it wanted to assess its own taxes. At issue is about $250,000 to $300,000 in taxes per year.
The tribe argued that the state tax was invalid because it infringed on the Potawatomi's rights of self-government.