Chickasaw Nation v. United States

PETITIONER: Chickasaw Nation
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Lawrence County Courthouse

DOCKET NO.: 00-507
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 534 US 84 (2001)
ARGUED: Oct 02, 2001
DECIDED: Nov 27, 2001

Edward C. DuMont - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the respondent
Grayton D. Luthey, Jr. -
Graydon D. Luthey, Jr. - Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

The Indian Regulatory Gaming Act provides that Internal Revenue Code provisions "(including sections 1441, 3402(q), 6041, and 6050I, and chapter 35() concerning the reporting and withholding of taxes" with respect to gambling operations shall apply to Indian tribes in the same way as they apply to States. Chapter 35 imposes taxes from which it exempts certain state-controlled gambling activities, but says nothing about tax reporting or withholding. The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations, in a lawsuit, claimed that the Gaming Act subsection's explicit parenthetical reference exempts them from paying those chapter 35 taxes from which the States are exempt. Rejecting that claim, the Court of Appeals ultimately held that the subsection applies only to Code provisions concerning tax withholding and reporting.


Does the Indian Regulatory Gaming Act exempt tribes from paying the gambling-related taxes, which State need not pay, imposed by chapter 35 of the Internal Revenue Code?

Media for Chickasaw Nation v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 02, 2001 in Chickasaw Nation v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - November 27, 2001 in Chickasaw Nation v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the court No. 00-507 Chickasaw Nation versus United States Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma will be announced by Justice Breyer.

Stephen G. Breyer:

There is an act called the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that provides that certain Internal Revenue Code provisions will apply to Indian tribes the same way that they apply the States, which ones.

But what the Act says is “provisions... concerning the reporting and withholding of gambling taxes.” Those are the provisions, but as you noticed I said, “...”. Now, what is in those ... is a parenthetical.

So, what it actually says is provisions (including Sections 1441, 3402(q), 6041, and 6050I and chapter 35 of such Code, i.e., chapter 35 of the Internal Revenue Code).

Now the problem in the case comes up because chapter 35 has nothing whatsoever to do with reporting and the withholding of gambling taxes.

It is the provision that asserts, that lays down, and that imposes the tax.

Well, the Tribes argue that we have to give some meaning to the word "chapter 35", and the only possible meaning it could have is that it should apply to them as it applies to States.

It happens to make exceptions for the States from the tax and therefore the Tribe shouldn't have to pay tax either.

Now, at the very least, they say, the statute is ambiguous in that respect and that being so, remember, the canon, statutes are to be construed liberally in favor of the Indians which has appeared in several of our cases.

Now, it is a very good argument but we conclude that we cannot agree with that argument.

In our view, the statute is about what it says it is about, namely the reporting and withholding of taxes.

It is not about imposing taxes.

We think it means that the Indian tribes like the States are free from certain reporting and withholding requirements.

We do not think it means that the Indian tribes don't have to pay the taxes.

And as far as the reference to chapter 35, we think basically, it was a cross referencing error, a numerical error, remaining in the statute and that conclusion draws some support from the fact that at one stage, the bill that became the law referred not just to reporting and withholding but it also referred to “taxation”.

In which case, a cross reference to chapter 35 would have, at that time, made a lot of sense but the committee took the word taxation out of the bill.

We cannot say the statute is really ambiguous at least it cannot be understood in two or more possible senses.

Considering ordinary life, somebody is saying to you, “Test drive some cars including Plymouth, Nissan, Chevrolet, Ford, and Kitchenaid.”

Well, I do not think we would say that was ambiguous; I think we would say whoever was saying it just made a mistake, they don't understand what Kitchenaid is, and that is basically how we conclude the provision in front of us should be interpreted.

Nor can we really make the Indian Canon determinative because there are many canons here and they cut in different directions, for example, there is a canon that says, "exemptions from taxation must be clearly expressed".

For these and other reasons discussed in our opinion, we reject the Tribe’s claim for tax exemption.

We affirm the similar determination made by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Justice O’Connor has filed a dissenting opinion which Justice Souter has joined.