skip navigation
search

Oklahoma Tax Comm'n v. Potawatomi Tribe (89-1322), 498 U.S. 505 (1991)
Opinion
Concurrence
Syllabus
HTML version
WordPerfect version
HTML version
WordPerfect version
HTML version
WordPerfect version

OKLAHOMA TAX COMMISSION, PETITIONER v. CITIZEN BAND, POTAWATOMI INDIAN TRIBE OF OKLAHOMA

No. 89-1322

[February 26, 1991]

Justice Stevens, concurring.

The doctrine of sovereign immunity is founded upon an anachronistic fiction. See Nevada v. Hall, 440 U.S. 410, 414-416 (1979). In my opinion all Governments — federal, state, and tribal — should generally be accountable for their illegal conduct. The rule that an Indian tribe is immune from an action for damages absent its consent is, however, an established part of our law. See United States v. United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co., 309 U.S. 506, 512-513 (1940). Nevertheless, I am not sure that the rule of tribal sovereign immunity extends to cases arising from a tribe's conduct of commercial activity outside its own territory, cf. 28 U.S.C. 1605(a) ("A foreign state shall not be immune from the jurisdiction of courts of the United States or of the States in any case . . . (2) in which the action is based upon a commercial activity carried on in the United States by a foreign state . . . ."), or that it applies to claims for prospective equitable relief against a tribe, cf. Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 664-665 (1974) (Eleventh Amendment bars suits against States for retroactive monetary relief, but not for prospective injunctive relief).

In analyzing whether the Citizens Band Potawatomi Indian Tribe can be held prospectively liable for taxes on the sale of cigarettes, the Court today in effect acknowledges limits to a tribe's sovereign immunity, although it does not do so explicitly. The Court affirms the Court of Appeals' holding that the Oklahoma Tax Commission's counterclaim against the Tribe was properly dismissed on grounds of the Tribe's sovereign immunity, but then proceeds to address the precise question raised in the counterclaim — whether the Tribe in the future can be assessed for taxes on its sales of cigarettes. The Court indulges in this anomaly by reasoning that the issue of the Tribe's prospective liability "is fairly subsumed" in the Tribe's main action seeking to have the Tax Commission enjoined from collecting back taxes. See ante, at 6.

In my opinion, however, the issue of prospective liability is properly presented only in the Tax Commission's counterclaim. It is quite possible to decide that the Tribe cannot be liable for past sales taxes which it never collected without going on to decide whether the Tax Commission may require the Tribe to collect state taxes on its sales in the first place. In my opinion the Court correctly reaches the issue of the Tribe's prospective liability and correctly holds that the State may collect taxes on tribal sales to non-Indians. My purpose in writing separately is to emphasize that the Court's holding in effect rejects the argument that this governmental entity — the Tribe — is completely immune from legal process. By addressing the substance of the Tax Commission's claim for prospective injunctive relief against the Tribe, the Court today recognizes that a tribe's sovereign immunity from actions seeking money damages does not necessarily extend to actions seeking equitable relief.