The Conflicts Between Tribal and State Sovereignty: Will Interference with Tribal Sovereignty be Tolerated?

Alicia Dodge, Senior Editor, Albany Government Law Review Member

I.  Historical Background

The legal doctrine of “tribal sovereignty” is known as “the right of Native American tribal nations to exercise their inherent power to govern their own internal affairs.” [1] Although this doctrine is well recognized by the federal and state governments alike, it has not been interpreted as broadly as the doctrine’s definition would lead one to believe.  Congress is empowered through the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution to regulate commerce between the states, with foreign nations, and with Indian tribes. [2] Similarly, states also retain the right to regulate the conduct of non-Native Americans on reservations. [3] For example, the United States Supreme Court has held that states may impose sales taxes on goods sold by Native Americans on reservation land to purchasers who are non-Native Americans. [4] In Snyder v. Wetzler, [5] the New York Court of Appeals also determined that New York State has the authority to impose such taxes. [6] Regardless of this authority, currently the more controversial issue is how to properly enforce such collections.

II.  The Implications of New York State Tax Law § 471-e

In 2003, the New York State Legislature “enacted Tax Law § 471-e to require the collection of taxes on cigarettes sold by reservation vendors to non-[Native-Americans].” [7] This law was amended in 2005, and it outlined a tax exemption coupon system. [8] Cigarettes purchased by a tribe member on his or her reservation were to remain tax-free, but any cigarettes purchased by a Native American on another tribe’s reservation or by a non-Native American on a reservation were to be taxed, represented by a tax stamp.[9] The Department of Taxation and Finance (hereinafter “the Department”) was directed to issue coupons to the tribes on a quarterly basis, with the amount determined based upon the “probable demand” of the tribe.[10]

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