Judge blocks state from interfering with tribe
Friday, August 8, 2003

After a four-year battle with state authorities, a Kansas tribe has prevailed in its fight to issue car tags to tribal members.

In a 41-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Julie A. Robinson said the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation is exercising its right to self-governance by licensing and registering vehicles. Rejecting several arguments made by the state, she permanently barred Kansas authorities from imposing state laws on the tribe.

"Motor vehicle registration and titling is a traditional governmental function and the state's interference with the nation's pursuit in this regard is considered interference with or infringement on tribal self-government," she wrote on Wednesday.

In March 1999, the tribe passed a motor vehicle ordinance in anticipation of registering all cars owned by tribal members living on the reservation. A handful of license plates were issued but it wasn't until later that year when a tribal member was cited by state police for not having state tags.

The tribe sued to protect its rights and won a preliminary injunction. The state challenged the ruling, but it was upheld by 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in June 2001, clearing the way for the tribe's victory this week.

Throughout the case, the state has taken some curious positions. While it recognizes car tags issued by tribes in neighboring Oklahoma, it was steadfastly refusing to do the same for the Prairie Band Potawatomi. In appealing to the 10th Circuit, the state even said it would recognize car tags from tribes in other states.

When the case was returned to the lower court for a final ruling, the state continued to resist, arguing that it was immune from the lawsuit, that the car tags are only valid on reservation and that public safety is at risk. One by one, Robinson rejected every argument, noting that some of them had been raised before and dismissed.

In imposing a permanent injunction, Robinson looked closer at the interplay between state and federal law and the threat to public safety. On the first, she ruled that federal policy affirming tribal self-determination weighed in the tribe's favor.

On the safety issue, Robinson said the state's claims were largely "exaggerated" because the tribe is providing a list of its registrations to the state. The state's main argument was that tribal vehicles aren't entered into public computer databases used by law enforcement.

Kansas officials are currently battling tribes on several fronts. The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation recently lost a gas tax ruling in a case before Robinson.

But in another case, the state was barred from imposing a tax on a gas distribution business owned by the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. The decision is on appeal to the 10th Circuit.

Get the Decision:
Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation v. Wagnon (July 6, 2003)

Related Decision:
Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation v. Pierce (10th Circuit June 25, 2001)

Relevant Links:
Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation -

Related Stories:
Kan. wins ruling in tribal gas tax dispute (01/29)
Appeals court to hear Winnebago tax case (1/27)
State appealing tribal gas ruling (09/02)
Winnebago Tribe welcomes gas tax decision (7/12)
State ordered to return tribal property (7/11)
Winnebago Tribe wants property back (5/21)
Court halts tax on tribe (5/18)
Winnebago leaders ordered arrested (4/12)
Fight expected over gas taxes (4/11)
Winnebago Tribe's gas trucks seized (4/10)
Kan. tribe wins round in car tag dispute (6/26)

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