411 U.S. 164 (1973), 71-834, McClanahan v. Arizona State Tax Commission

Docket Nº:No. 71-834
Citation:411 U.S. 164, 93 S.Ct. 1257, 36 L.Ed.2d 129
Party Name:McClanahan v. Arizona State Tax Commission
Case Date:March 27, 1973
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 164

411 U.S. 164 (1973)

93 S.Ct. 1257, 36 L.Ed.2d 129



Arizona State Tax Commission

No. 71-834

United States Supreme Court

March 27, 1973

Argued December 12, 1972



The State of Arizona has no jurisdiction to impose a tax on the income of Navajo Indians residing on the Navajo Reservation and whose income is wholly derived from reservation sources, as is clear from the relevant treaty with the Navajos and federal statutes. Pp. 167-181.

14 Ariz.App. 452, 484 P.2d 221, reversed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Page 165

MARSHALL, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us once again to reconcile the plenary power of the States over residents within their borders with the semi-autonomous status of Indians living on tribal reservations. In this instance, the problem arises in the context of Arizona's efforts to impose its personal income tax on a reservation Indian whose entire income derives from reservation sources. Although we have repeatedly addressed the question of state taxation of reservation Indians,1 the problems posed by a state income tax are apparently of first impression in this Court.2 The Arizona courts have held that such state taxation is [93 S.Ct. 1259] permissible. 14 Ariz.App. 452, 484 P.2d 221 (1971). We noted probable jurisdiction, 406 U.S. 916 (1972), and now reverse. We hold that, by imposing the tax in question on this appellant, the State has interfered with matters which the relevant treaty and statutes leave to the exclusive province of the Federal Government and the Indians themselves. The tax is therefore unlawful as applied to reservation Indians with income derived wholly from reservation sources.


Appellant is an enrolled member of the Navajo tribe who lives on that portion of the Navajo Reservation located within the State of Arizona. Her complaint alleges

Page 166

that all her income earned during 1967 was derived from within the Navajo Reservation. Pursuant to Ariz.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 43-188(f) (Supp. 1972-1973), $16.20 was withheld from her wages for that year to cover her state income tax liability.3 At the conclusion of the tax year, appellant filed a protest against the collection of any taxes on her income and a claim for a refund of the entire amount withheld from her wages. When no action was taken on her claim, she instituted this action in Arizona Superior Court on behalf of herself and those similarly situated, demanding a return of the money withheld and a declaration that the state tax was unlawful as applied to reservation Indians.

The trial court dismissed the action for failure to state a claim, and the Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed. Citing this Court's decision in Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217 (1959), the Court of Appeals held that the test

is not whether the Arizona state income tax infringes on plaintiff's rights as an individual Navajo Indian, but whether such a tax infringes on the rights of the Navajo tribe of Indians to be self-governing.

14 Ariz.App. at 454, 484 P.2d at 223. The court thus distinguished cases dealing with state taxes on Indian real property on the ground that these taxes, unlike the personal income tax, infringed tribal autonomy.

Page 167

The court then pointed to cases holding that state employees could be required to pay federal income taxes and that the State had a concomitant right to tax federal employees. See Helvering v. Gerhardt, 304 U.S. 405 (1938); Graves v. New York ex rel. O'Keefe, 306 U.S. 466 (1939). Reasoning by analogy from these cases, the court argued that Arizona's income tax on individual Navajo Indians did not "[cause] an impairment of the right of the Navajo tribe to be self-governing." 14 Ariz.App. at 455, 484 P.2d at 224.

Nor did the court find anything in the Arizona Enabling Act, 36 Stat. 557, to prevent the State from taking reservation Indians. That Act, the relevant language of which is duplicated in the Arizona Constitution, disclaims state title over Indian lands, and requires that such lands shall remain "under the absolute jurisdiction and control of the Congress of the United States." 36 Stat. [93 S.Ct. 1260] 569. But the Arizona court, relying on this Court's decision in Organized Village of Kake v. Egan, 369 U.S. 60 (1962), held that the Enabling Act nonetheless permitted concurrent state jurisdiction so long as tribal self-government remained intact. Since an individual income tax did not interfere with tribal self-government, it followed that appellant had failed to state a claim. The Arizona Supreme Court denied a petition for review of this decision, and the case came here on appeal. See 28 U.S.C. § 1257(2).


It may be helpful to begin our discussion of the law applicable to this complex area with a brief statement of what this case does not involve. We are not here dealing with Indians who have left or never inhabited reservations set aside for their exclusive use or who do not possess the usual accoutrements of tribal self-government.

Page 168

See, e.g., Organized Village of Kake v. Egan, supra; Metlakatla Indian Community v. Egan, 369 U.S. 45 (1962); Oklahoma Tax Comm'n v. United States, 319 U.S. 598 (1943). Nor are we concerned with exertions of state sovereignty over non-Indians who undertake activity on Indian reservations. See, e.g., Thomas v. Gay, 169 U.S. 264 (1898); Utah & Northern R. Co. v. Fisher, 116 U.S. 28 (18&5). Cf. Surplus Trading Co. v. Cook, 281 U.S. 647, 651 (1930). Nor, finally, is this a case where the State seeks to reach activity undertaken by reservation Indians on nonreservation lands. See, e.g., Mescalero Apache Tribe v. Jones, ante, p. 145. Rather, this case involves the narrow question whether the State may tax a reservation Indian for income earned exclusively on the reservation.

The principles governing the resolution of this question are not new. On the contrary, "[t]he policy of leaving Indians free from state jurisdiction and control is deeply rooted in the Nation's history." Rice v. Olson, 324 U.S. 786, 789 (1945). This policy was first articulated by this Court 141 years ago when Mr. Chief Justice Marshall held that Indian nations were

distinct political communities, having territorial boundaries, within which their authority is exclusive, and having a right to all the lands within those boundaries, which is not only acknowledged, but guaranteed by the United States.

Worcester v. Georgia, 6 Pet. 515, 557 (1832). It followed from this concept of Indian reservations as separate, although dependent, nations that state law could have no role to play within the reservation boundaries.

The Cherokee nation . . . is a distinct community, occupying its own territory, with boundaries accurately described, in which the laws of Georgia can have no force, and which the citizens of Georgia have no right to enter, but with the assent of the Cherokees themselves, or in

Page 169

conformity with treaties, and with the acts of Congress. The whole intercourse between the United States and this nation, is, by our Constitution and laws, vested in the government of the United States.

Id. at 561. See also United States v. Kagama, 118 U.S. 375 (1886); Ex parte Crow Dog, 109 U.S. 556 (1883).

Although Worcester, on its facts, dealt with a State's efforts to extend its criminal jurisdiction to reservation lands,4 the rationale of the case plainly extended to state taxation within the reservation as well. Thus, in The Kansas Indians, 5 Wall. 737 ( 1867), [93 S.Ct. 1261] the Court unambiguously rejected state efforts to impose a land tax on reservation Indians.

If the tribal organization of the Shawnees is preserved intact, and recognized by the political department of the government as existing, then they are a "people distinct from others," capable of making treaties, separated from the jurisdiction of Kansas, and to be governed exclusively by the government of the Union. If under the control of Congress, from necessity, there can be no divided authority.

Id. at 755. See also The New York Indians, 5 Wall. 761 (1867).

It is true, as the State asserts, that some of the later Indian tax cases turn not on the Indian sovereignty doctrine, but on whether or not the State can be said to have imposed a forbidden tax on a federal instrumentality. See, e.g., Leahy v. State Treasurer of Oklahoma, 297 U.S. 420 (1936); United States v. Rickert, 188 U.S. 432 (1903). To the extent that the tax exemption rests on federal immunity from state taxation, it may well be inapplicable in a case, such as this, involving an individual

Page 170

income tax.5 But it would vastly oversimplify the problem to say that nothing remains of the notion that reservation Indians are a separate people to whom state jurisdiction, and therefore state tax legislation, may not extend. Thus, only a few years ago, this Court struck down Arizona's attempt to tax the proceeds of a trading company doing business within the confines of the very reservation involved in this case. See Warren Trading Post Co. v. Arizona Tax Comm'n, 380 U.S. 685 (1965). The tax in no way interfered with federal land or with the National Government's proprietary interests. But it was invalidated nonetheless because,

from the very first days of our Government, the Federal Government had been permitting the Indians largely to govern themselves, free from state interference.

Id. at 686-687.6 As a leading text on Indian problems summarizes the relevant law:

State laws generally are

Page 171

not applicable to tribal Indians on an Indian reservation except where Congress has expressly provided that State laws shall apply. It follows that Indians and Indian property on an Indian reservation are not subject to State taxation except by virtue of express authority conferred upon the State by act of Congress.


To continue reading