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decided: April 25, 1989.



Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and White, O'Connor, Scalia, and Kennedy, JJ., joined. Blackmun, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Brennan and Marshall, JJ., joined, post, p. 193.

Author: Stevens

[ 490 U.S. Page 166]

 JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case is a sequel to Merrion v. Jicarilla Apache Tribe, 455 U.S. 130 (1982), in which we held that the Jicarilla Apache Tribe (Tribe) has the power to impose a severance tax on the production of oil and gas by non-Indian lessees of wells located on the Tribe's reservation. We must now decide whether the State of New Mexico can continue to impose its severance taxes on the same production of oil and gas.


All 742,135 acres of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation are located in northwestern New Mexico. Id., at 133. In 1887, President Cleveland issued an Executive Order setting aside this tract of public land "as a reservation for the use and occupation of the Jicarilla Apache Indians." 1 C. Kappler, Indian Affairs, Laws and Treaties 875 (1904). The only qualification contained in the order was a proviso protecting bona fide settlers from defeasance of previously acquired federal rights.*fn1

[ 490 U.S. Page 167]

     Secretary also approved. See Oil and Gas Privilege Tax, Ordinance No. 85-0-434, J. A. T. C., Tit. 11, ch. 2 (1985).*fn2

In 1976, Cotton Petroleum Corporation (Cotton), a non-Indian company in the business of extracting and marketing oil and gas, acquired five leases covering approximately 15,000 acres of the reservation. There were then 15 operating wells on the leased acreage and Cotton has since drilled another 50 wells. The leases were issued by the Tribe and the United States under the authority of the 1938 Act. Pursuant to the terms of the leases, Cotton pays the Tribe a rent of $125 per acre, plus a royalty of 12 1/2 percent of the value of its production.*fn3 In addition, Cotton pays the Tribe's oil and gas severance and privilege taxes, which amount to approximately 6 percent of the value of its production. Thus, Cotton's aggregate payment to the Tribe includes an acreage rent in excess of $1 million, plus royalties and taxes amounting to about 18 1/2 percent of its production.

Prior to 1982, Cotton paid, without objection, five different oil and gas production taxes to the State of New Mexico.*fn4 The state taxes amount to about 8 percent of the value of Cotton's production. The same 8 percent is collected from producers throughout the State. Thus, on wells outside the

[ 490 U.S. Page 169]

     reservation, the total tax burden is only 8 percent, while Cotton's reservation wells are taxed at a total rate of 14 percent (8 percent by the State and 6 percent by the Tribe). No state tax is imposed on the royalties received by the Tribe.

At the end of our opinion in Merrion, 455 U.S., at 158-159, n. 26, we added a footnote rejecting the taxpayer's argument that the tribal tax was invalid as a "multiple tax burden on interstate commerce" because imposed on the same activity already taxed by the State. One of the reasons the argument failed was that the taxpayer had made no attempt to show that the Tribe was "seek[ing] to seize more tax revenues than would be fairly related to the services provided by the Tribe." Ibid. After making that point, the footnote suggested that the state tax might be invalid under the Commerce Clause if in excess of what "the State's contact with the activity would justify."*fn5 Ibid. (emphasis in original).

[ 490 U.S. Page 170]

     In 1982, Cotton paid its state taxes under protest and then brought an action in the District Court for Santa Fe County challenging the taxes under the Indian Commerce, Interstate Commerce, Due Process, and Supremacy Clauses of the Federal Constitution. App. 2-15. Relying on the Merrion footnote, Cotton contended that state taxes imposed on reservation activity are only valid if related to actual expenditures by the State in relation to the activity being taxed. Record 421. In support of this theory, Cotton presented evidence at trial tending to prove that the amount of tax it paid to the State far exceeded the value of services that the State provided to it and that the taxes paid by all nonmember oil producers far exceeded the value of services provided to the reservation as a whole.*fn6 Cotton did not, however, attempt to prove that the state taxes imposed any burden on the Tribe.

After trial, the Tribe sought, and was granted, leave to file a brief amicus curiae. Id., at 128. The Tribe argued that a decision upholding the state taxes would substantially interfere with the Tribe's ability to raise its own tax rates and would diminish the desirability of on-reservation oil and gas leases. Id., at 124. The Tribe expressed a particular concern about what it characterized as a failure of the State "to provide services commensurate with the taxes collected." Ibid.

[ 490 U.S. Page 171]

     After the Tribe filed its brief, the New Mexico District Court issued a decision upholding the state taxes. App. to Juris. Statement 14. The District Court found that "New Mexico provides substantial services to both the Jicarilla Tribe and Cotton,"*fn7 and concluded that the State had a valid interest in imposing taxes on non-Indians on the reservation.*fn8 Squarely rejecting Cotton's theory of the case, the court stated that "[t]he theory of public finance does not require expenditures equal to revenues." Id., at 17. Turning to the question whether the state taxes were inconsistent with the federal interest in fostering the economic development of Indian tribes, the District Court found that the "economic and legal burden of paying the state taxes falls on Cotton or its buyers" and that "[n]o economic burden falls on the tribe by virtue of the state taxes." Id., at 15. More specifically, it found that the state taxes had not affected the Tribe's ability to collect its taxes or to impose a higher

[ 490 U.S. Page 172]

     tax, and had "not in any way deterred production of oil and gas" on the reservation. Id., at 16-17. It concluded that the taxes had no adverse impact on tribal interests and that they were not pre-empted by federal law. Id., at 17-18. Finally, the District Court held that the taxes were fully consistent with the Commerce and Due Process Clauses of the Federal Constitution. Ibid.

The New Mexico Court of Appeals affirmed. 106 N. M. 517, 745 P. 2d 1170 (1987). Like the District Court, it was left unpersuaded by Cotton's contention that the New Mexico taxes are invalid because the State's expenditures on reservation activity do not equal the revenues collected. The Court of Appeals correctly noted that the Merrion footnote, 455 U.S., at 159, n. 26, "intimate[s] no opinion on the possibility of such a challenge," but simply suggests that a state tax "might" be invalid if greater than the State's "contact with the [on-reservation] activity would justify." 106 N. M., at 520, 745 P. 2d, at 1173. Finding no support for Cotton's position in Merrion, the Court of Appeals looked instead to our opinion in Commonwealth Edison Co. v. Montana, 453 U.S. 609 (1981), and concluded that a State's power to tax an activity connected to interstate commerce is not limited to the value of the services provided in support of that activity. 106 N. M., at 521, 745 P. 2d, at 1174. Agreeing with the trial court that the New Mexico taxes were fairly related to the services provided to Cotton, the Court of Appeals rejected Cotton's Commerce Clause challenge. Ibid.

The Tribe, again participating as an amicus curiae, urged a different approach to the case. Unlike Cotton, the Tribe argued that the state taxes could not withstand traditional pre-emption analysis. The Tribe conceded that state laws, to the extent they do not interfere with tribal self-government, may control the conduct of non-Indians on the reservation. It maintained, however, that the taxes at issue interfered with its ability to raise taxes and thus with its right to self-government. The Court of Appeals rejected

[ 490 U.S. Page 173]

     this argument because the record contained no evidence of any adverse impact on the Tribe and, indeed, indicated that the Tribe could impose even higher taxes than it had without adverse effect.*fn9

The New Mexico Supreme Court granted, but then quashed, a writ of certiorari. 106 N. M. 511, 745 P. 2d 1159 (1987). We then noted probable jurisdiction and invited the parties to brief and argue the following additional question:

"Does the Commerce Clause require that an Indian Tribe be treated as a State for purposes of determining whether a state tax on nontribal activities conducted on an Indian Reservation must be apportioned to account for taxes imposed on those same activities by the Indian Tribe?" 485 U.S. 1005 (1988).

We now affirm the judgment of the New Mexico Court of Appeals.


This Court's approach to the question whether a State may tax on-reservation oil production by non-Indian lessees has varied over the course of the past century. At one time, such a tax was held invalid unless expressly authorized by Congress; more recently, such taxes have been upheld unless expressly or impliedly prohibited by Congress. The changed approach to these taxes is one aspect of the evolution of the doctrine of intergovernmental tax immunity that we recently discussed in detail in South Carolina v. Baker, 485 U.S. 505 (1988).

During the first third of this century, this Court frequently invalidated state taxes that arguably imposed an indirect economic

[ 490 U.S. Page 174]

     burden on the Federal Government or its instrumentalities by application of the "intergovernmental immunity" doctrine. That doctrine "was based on the rationale that any tax on income a party received under a contract with the government was a tax on the contract and thus a tax 'on' the government because it burdened the government's power to enter into the contract." Id., at 518. In a case decided in 1922, the Court applied the intergovernmental immunity doctrine to invalidate a state tax on income derived by a non-Indian lessee from the sale of his interest in oil produced on Indian land. See Gillespie v. Oklahoma, 257 U.S. 501. Consistently with the view of intergovernmental immunity that then prevailed, the Court stated that "a tax upon such profits is a direct hamper upon the effort of the United States to make the best terms that it can for its wards." Id., at 506 (citing Weston v. Charleston, 2 Pet. 449, 468 (1829)). The same reasoning was used to invalidate a variety of other state taxes imposed on non-Indian lessees at that time.*fn10

Shortly after reaching its zenith in the Gillespie decision, the doctrine of intergovernmental tax immunity started a long path in decline and has now been "thoroughly repudiated" by modern case law. South Carolina v. Baker, supra, at 520. In 1932, four Members of this Court argued that Gillespie was unsound and should be overruled. See Burnet v. Coronado Oil & Gas Co., 285 U.S. 393, 401 (Stone, J., dissenting); id., at 405 (Brandeis, J., dissenting). Five years later, the Court took a substantial step in that direction, rejecting the view that a nondiscriminatory state tax on a

[ 490 U.S. Page 175]

     private party contracting with the Government is invalid because the economic burden of the tax may fall on the Government. See James v. Dravo Contracting Co., 302 U.S. 134 (1937). "With the rationale for conferring a tax immunity on parties dealing with another government rejected, the government contract immunities recognized under prior doctrine were, one by one, eliminated." South Carolina v. Baker, supra, at 522. Specifically, in Helvering v. Mountain Producers Corp., 303 U.S. 376, 386-387 (1938), the Court squarely overruled Gillespie, supra. Thus, after Mountain Producers Corp., supra, was decided, oil and gas lessees operating on Indian reservations were subject to nondiscriminatory state taxation as long as Congress did not act affirmatively to pre-empt the state taxes. See ibid. See also Oklahoma Tax Comm'n v. Texas Co., 336 U.S. 342 (1949).

In sum, it is well settled that, absent express congressional authorization, a State cannot tax the United States directly. See McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316 (1819). It is also clear that the tax immunity of the United States is shared by the Indian tribes for whose benefit the United States holds reservation lands in trust. See Montana v. Blackfeet Tribe, 471 U.S. 759, 764 (1985). Under current doctrine, however, a State can impose a nondiscriminatory tax on private parties with whom the United States or an Indian tribe does business, even though the financial burden of the tax may fall on the United States or tribe. See id., at 765; South Carolina v. Baker, supra, at 523. Although a lessee's oil production on Indian lands is therefore not "automatically exempt from state taxation," Congress does, of course, retain the power to grant such immunity. Mescalero Apache Tribe v. Jones, 411 U.S. 145, 150 (1973). Whether such immunity shall be granted is thus a question that "is essentially legislative in character." Texas Co., supra, at 365-366.

The question for us to decide is whether Congress has acted to grant the Tribe such immunity, either expressly or

[ 490 U.S. Page 176]

     by plain implication.*fn11 In addition, we must consider Cotton's argument that the "multiple burden" imposed by the state and tribal taxes is unconstitutional.


Although determining whether federal legislation has preempted state taxation of lessees of Indian land is primarily an exercise in examining congressional intent, the history of tribal sovereignty serves as a necessary "backdrop" to that process. Cf. Rice v. Rehner, 463 U.S. 713, 719 (1983) (quoting McClanahan v. Arizona State Tax Comm'n, 411 U.S. 164, 172 (1973)). As a result, questions of pre-emption in this area are not resolved by reference to standards of preemption that have developed in other areas of the law, and are not controlled by "mechanical or absolute conceptions of state or tribal sovereignty." White Mountain Apache Tribe v. Bracker, 448 U.S. 136, 145 (1980). Instead, we have applied a flexible pre-emption analysis sensitive to the particular facts and legislation involved. Each case "requires a particularized examination of the relevant state, federal, and tribal interests." Ramah Navajo School Bd., Inc. v. Bureau of Revenue of New Mexico, 458 U.S. 832, 838 (1982). Moreover, in examining the pre-emptive force of the relevant federal legislation, we are cognizant of both the broad policies that underlie the legislation and the history of tribal independence in the field at issue. See ibid. It bears emphasis that although congressional silence no longer entails a broad-based immunity from taxation for private parties doing business with Indian tribes, federal pre-emption is not limited to cases in which Congress has expressly -- as compared to

[ 490 U.S. Page 177]

     impliedly -- pre-empted the state activity. Finally, we note that although state interests must be given weight and courts should be careful not to make legislative decisions in the absence of congressional action, ambiguities in federal law are, as a rule, resolved in favor of tribal independence. See ibid.

Against this background, Cotton argues that the New Mexico taxes are pre-empted by the "federal laws and policies which protect tribal self-government and strengthen impoverished reservation economies." Brief for Appellants 16. Most significantly, Cotton contends that the 1938 Act exhibits a strong federal interest in guaranteeing Indian tribes the maximum return on their oil and gas leases. Moreover, Cotton maintains that the Federal and Tribal Governments, acting pursuant to the 1938 Act, its accompanying regulations, and the Jicarilla Apache Tribal Code, exercise comprehensive regulatory control over Cotton's on-reservation activity. Cotton describes New Mexico's responsibilities, in contrast, as "significantly limited." Brief for Appellants 21. Thus, weighing the respective state, federal, and tribal interests, Cotton concludes that the New Mexico taxes unduly interfere with the federal interest in promoting tribal economic self-sufficiency and are not justified by an adequate state interest. We disagree.

The 1938 Act neither expressly permits state taxation nor expressly precludes it, but rather simply provides that "unallotted lands within any Indian reservation or lands owned by any tribe . . . may, with the approval of the Secretary of the Interior, be leased for mining purposes, by authority of the tribal council . . ., for terms not to exceed ten years and as long thereafter as minerals are produced in paying quantities." 25 U. S. C. ยง 396a. The Senate and House Reports that accompanied the Act, moreover -- even when considered in their broadest possible terms -- shed little light on congressional intent concerning state taxation of oil and gas produced on leased lands. See S. Rep. No. 985, 75th Cong., 1st Sess. (1937); H. R. Rep. No. 1872, 75th Cong.,

[ 490 U.S. Page 1783]

     d Sess. (1938). Both Reports reflect that the proposed legislation was suggested by the Secretary and considered by the appropriate committees, which recommended that it pass without amendment. Beyond this procedural summary, the Reports simply rely on the Secretary's letter of transmittal to describe the purpose of the Act. That letter provides that the legislation was intended, in light of the disarray of federal law in the area, "to obtain uniformity so far as practicable of the law relating to the leasing of tribal lands for mining purposes," and, in particular, was designed to "bring all mineral leasing matters in harmony with the Indian Reorganization Act." Id., at 1, 3; S. Rep. No. 985, supra, at 2, 3. In addition, the letter contains the following passage:

" It is not believed that the present law is adequate to give the Indians the greatest return from their property. As stated, present law provides for locating and taking mineral leases in the same manner as mining locations are made on the public lands of the United States; but there are disadvantages in following this procedure on Indian lands that are not present in applying for a claim on the public domain. For instance, on the public domain the discoverer of a mineral deposit gets extralateral rights and can follow the ore beyond the side lines indefinitely, while on the Indian lands under the act of June 30, 1919, he is limited to the confines of the survey markers not to exceed 600 feet by 1,500 feet in any one claim. The draft of the bill herewith would permit the obtaining of sufficient acreage to remove the necessity for extralateral rights with all of its attending controversies." Id., at 2; H. R. Rep. No. 1872, supra, at 2 (emphasis added).

Relying on the first sentence in this paragraph, Cotton argues that the 1938 Act embodies a broad congressional policy of maximizing revenues for Indian tribes. Cotton finds support for this proposition in Montana v. Blackfeet Tribe, 471 U.S. 759 (1985). That case raised the question

[ 490 U.S. Page 179]

     whether the 1938 Act authorizes state taxation of a tribe's royalty interests under oil and gas leases issued to nonmembers. Applying the settled rule that a tribe may only be directly taxed by a State if "Congress has made its intention to [lift the tribe's exemption] unmistakably clear," id., at 765, we concluded that "the State may not tax Indian royalty income from leases issued pursuant to the 1938 Act," id., at 768. In a footnote we added the observation that direct state taxation of Indian revenues would frustrate the 1938 Act's purpose of "ensur[ing] that Indians receive 'the greatest return from their property,' [S. Rep. No. 985, supra, at] 2; H. R. Rep. No. 1872, supra, at 2." Id., at 767, n. 5.

To the extent Cotton seeks to give the Secretary's reference to "the greatest return from their property" talismanic effect, arguing that these words demonstrate that Congress intended to guarantee Indian tribes the maximum profit available without regard to competing state interests, it overstates its case. There is nothing remarkable in the proposition that, in authorizing mineral leases, Congress sought to provide Indian tribes with a profitable source of revenue. It is however quite remarkable, indeed unfathomable in our view, to suggest that Congress intended to remove all state-imposed obstacles to profitability by attaching to the Senate and House Reports a letter from the Secretary that happened to include the phrase "the greatest return from their property." Read in the broadest terms possible, the relevant paragraph suggests that Congress sought to remove "disadvantages in [leasing mineral rights] on Indian lands that are not present in applying for a claim on the public domain." S. Rep. No. 985, supra, at 2; H. R. Rep. No. 1872, supra, at 2. By 1938, however, it was established that oil and gas ...

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