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Seminole Tribe won't get to argue taxation case at Supreme Court

Seminole Tribe Chairman Jim Billie and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell signed a HEARTH Act agreement in January 2015. Photo from Department of the Interior / Facebook

The Seminole Tribe saw a small setback on Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a taxation dispute involving the state of Florida.

Without comment, the justices rejected the tribe's petition in Seminole Tribe v. Stranburg in an order list. That means a lower court decision, which rejected one tax on the reservation while another was upheld, will stand.

Last August, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state's rental tax was illegal. In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel said the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and U.S. Supreme Court barred the state from asserting authority in Indian Country.

"The state of Florida has not shown any state interest in its rental tax beyond the general raising of revenue to provide generalized services nor has it pointed to any state regulation of Indian-land leasing that would render the federal regulations nonexclusive," Judge Robin S. Rosenbaum wrote for the majority.

On a second issue, though, the court sided with the state. A utility tax does not affect the tribe's rights because it falls on third parties and is not pre-empted by federal laws or regulations, Rosenbaum said.

"Just as the state cannot assert a generalized interest in raising revenue to support its taxes, the tribe cannot demonstrate congressional intent to preempt a specific state tax by bundling up an assortment of unrelated federal and tribal interests tied together by the common thread of electricity use," the decision read.

At the same time, the 11th Circuit left open the possibility for a different conclusion. That means the tribe could show that the tax infringes on its interests once the case returns to a federal judge for further proceedings .

The court also took notice of a Bureau of Indian Affairs regulation from December 2012 which confirmed that tribal lands are exempt from state and local taxes. Although the court did not blindly accept the rationale behind the rule, Rosenbaum said it provided "substantial evidence of the extensive federal regulation of Indian land leasing" that tipped the scales in the Seminole Tribe's favor with respect to the rental tax.

Additionally, the BIA has been regularly citing the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership (HEARTH) Act as another example of the federal government's interest in protecting tribal rights. Although the law was not brought up in the 11th Circuit case, the Seminole Tribe has taken advantage of its provisions.

Turtle Talk has posted documents from the case, Seminole Tribe v. Stranburg.

11th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Seminole Tribe v. Stranburg (August 26, 2015)

Federal Register Notices:
HEARTH Act Approval of Seminole Tribe of Florida Regulations (August 12, 2015)
Residential, Business, and Wind and Solar Resource Leases on Indian Land (December 5, 2012)

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