A federal appeals court says the state can’t tax tribal lands that once fell out of tribal hands

Wisconsin cannot compel tribal members to pay property taxes on reservation land as part of a recent federal appeals court ruling that includes four northern Wisconsin tribes. The verdict is a victory for the tribes while the state is reviewing the next steps in the matter.

A federal appeals court panel ruled last week that states cannot tax tribal landowners on reservation lands that have changed hands without Congressional approval. The decision stems from a lawsuit filed by four tribes in 2018 against Republican former Governor Scott Walker, the state and about a dozen cities over the taxation of land on their reservations. The case was brought by the Red Cliff, Bad River, Lac du Flambeau and Lac Court Oreilles tribes.

The tribes argued that the tribal land owned by their members could not be taxed because treaty of 1854 which established their reservation, exempted them from taxation for all time. The state said it could lands on reservation if they were ever sold by tribal members to non-tribal members, surrendering any immunity to taxation.

US Circuit Judge Michael Y. Scudder, Jr. wrote in the decision, “The tax on Indians on Indian soil is, however, invalid unless Congress has authorized it in ‘precariously clear’ terms.”

The tribes said that the ruling underscores their rights to rule their lands.

“It is a reaffirmation of our sovereign right to our land, in which our tribe has reclaimed land that had been taken from our people since the treaty of 1854,” said a news release from the Lac Corte Oreilles Tribal. President Louis Taylor said.

Lac du Flambeau Tribal President John D. Johnson, Sr., said his tribe sets aside about $1 million each year to buy back land that has fallen out of tribal ownership.

Johnson told Wisconsin Public, “This is a big milestone in our lives. But as we look to the future, the state has to recognize that we have treaty rights and that those treaty rights mean indigenous to us.” The world is in the form of people.” radio. “Whether they like it or not, they still have to abide by the federal rules under which we have reservations.”

Bad River Tribal Chair Mike Wiggins told Milwaukee Journal Sentinel That the tribe spent more than $3 million to reclaim land on the reservation, adding at least 50 residents to the Bad River that would otherwise have been taxed.

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Christopher Boyd, chairman of Red Cliff Tribal, said News bulletin That the tribe has reclaimed about 1,500 acres of land in the last five years.

Boyd said, “(W)e are working very hard to provide our Aboriginal members with enough space to live and exercise their treaty rights. A tax on our land would put everything in jeopardy.”

The case, which began under the Walker administration, spanned years under Democratic Governor Tony Evers. Since his election, Evers has taken several steps to strengthen the state’s ties with the tribes. As governor, he issued a executive Order Which in 2019 reaffirmed the sovereign rights of tribal nations over their members and land.

In the same year he also issued an executive order recognizing the state’s first Swadeshi People’s Day, Last year, Evers also apologized for the state’s role in supporting Indian boarding schools, which sought to eliminate Aboriginal culture and language among Native American children. They have also signed gaming amendments with the Tribes to allow sports betting at tribal casinos.

At an event marking the return of Aboriginal land, Evers told WPR that he has begun discussions with the state’s legal counsel about the appeals court’s decision.

“Certainly appreciate the appellate court’s understanding. We reviewed it, but a final decision has not been made,” Evers said, when asked whether the state would appeal the decision.

Matt Lehto is chair of the City of White Rivers, one of 11 town tribes suing over the taxation of reservation land. He said the city awaits further guidance on the decision.

A lawyer for the townsfolk declined to make a statement until the state decides the next course of action in the case, saying the state has 90 days to decide whether to appeal to the US Supreme Court. to go or not

Howard Bichler is a recently retired attorney who helped represent the Bad River tribe when the case was initially filed in federal trial court. He said taxing tribal members would have been a burden for those landlords, given that reservations have historically struggled. poverty And high unemployment rate,

If the ruling holds, Bichler said states and towns would receive less revenue through property taxes.

“Their treasures will be few,” said Bichler. “Depending on the amount and specific programs, they have to find other sources of revenue for it.”

Bichler notes that many cases are not accepted for review by the US Supreme Court. However, he added that the court, which boasts a 6 to 3 conservative majority, may be more inclined to admit cases involving state rights.

“This is a conservative court, and they are looking for cases that strengthen the powers of the state,” Bichler said.


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