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OLYMPIA, Wash. -- The Washington State Supreme Court has moved legal challenge to the state's gas tax refunds to Native American tribes forward, ruling the 2010 lawsuit can proceed even though the tribes are not party to the case.
According to The News Tribune, Washington state officials have argued that federal law prevents them from collecting gas taxes on reservations. Instead, state officials signed agreements with tribes to mitigate those taxes. Under most motor vehicle fuel compacts, the state reimburses 75 percent of such taxes, and the tribes agree to spend the money on roads.
The Automotive United Trades Organization (AUTO), a trade group representing Washington gas station owners and auto repair shops, filed the lawsuit in May 2010 on behalf of the citizens of the state and its members in Grays Harbor County Superior Court, according to the groups' website, arguing the agreements were gave the Native American retailers an unfair advantage and sought to have then ruled unconstitutional.
In superior court, the state argued that the station owners could not sue without including the tribes, and since the station owners could not sue the tribes, which are sovereign nations, they could not sue anyone. The judge agreed and dismissed the case, the news outlet reported.
However, in a 5-to-4 decision on Aug. 30, the state high court overturned that ruling, saying that justice may not be served when a plaintiff can't sue because an absent party is a sovereign entity. "In such an instance, the quest for 'complete justice' ironically leads to none at all," Justice Debra L. Stephens wrote for the majority. "Sovereign immunity is meant to be raised as a shield by the tribe, not wielded as a sword by the state."
Rene Tomisser, senior counsel for the attorney general's office, called the ruling "surprising" and told the newspaper it was too soon to determine whether the state would appeal.
Phil Talmadge, the attorney for AUTO, said he was "very gratified" by the court's decision. Talmadge, a former state Supreme Court justice, raised concerns about money going from the state treasury to tribes without being appropriated by the legislature, and whether tribes are spending that money on roads as required.