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Seneca Business Owner To Challenge State In Court

A Seneca Nation business owner will have his day before New York state’s highest court on Wednesday to make his case that the state’s taxes on cigarettes are illegal.

The New York State Court of Appeals will hear White v. Schneiderman, in which Eric White, a member of the Seneca Nation, and Native Outlet, a convenience store White owns in Salamanca on the Allegany Reservation, have challenged the validity of state Tax Law Section 471, which imposes a tax on “all cigarettes sold on an Indian reservation to non-members of the Indian nation or tribe and to non-Indians.” White contends the tax law violates Indian Law Section 6, which states “No taxes shall be assessed, for any purpose whatever, upon any Indian reservation in this state, so long as the land of such reservation shall remain the property of the nation, tribe or band occupying the same.”

White also argues the state action violates the Buffalo Creek Treaty of 1842 between the Seneca Nation and the U.S. government. The 1842 treaty provides that the Seneca Nation retains rights to the Cattaraugus and Allegany reservation lands. White cites a portion of the treaty that states, “The parties to this compact mutually agree to solicit the influence of the government of the United States to protect such of the lands of the Seneca Indians, within the state of New York … from all taxes and assessments for roads, highways or any other purpose until such lands shall be sold and conveyed by the said Indians….”

Lastly, White argues the state taxation of cigarette sales to non-Indians violates the federal Commerce and Due Process clauses because the reservations belong to a sovereign nation.

State officials moved to dismiss the suit, saying Indian Law Section 6 and the Treaty of 1842 only apply to state taxation of land or real property. State Supreme Court granted the motion to dismiss. In June 2016, the Fourth Department Appellate Division heard White’s appeal and modified the opinion while still dismissing White’s arguments. The Fourth Department justices modified the Supreme Court ruling by saying the state’s tax law is not inconsistent with Indian Law Section 6 or the Treaty of 1842 or the federal Due Process or Commerce clauses.

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