AUTO v. Washington: An Imminent Threat to Washington Tribes’ Sovereignty

Make no mistake, the lawsuit brought by the Washington Automotive United Trades Organization (AUTO) seeks to eviscerate Washington tribes’ intergovernmental sovereign immunity and expose Tribal governments to suit by third parties based on agreements Tribes have entered into with the state. This month, the Supreme Court of the State of Washington agreed to hear the appeal of AUTO v. Washington, or as AUTO calls it, “AUTO v. Governor Gregoire.” A more accurate title might be AUTO v. Washington Indian Country. AUTO is targeting state-Tribal compacts, presumably because Tribal fuel enterprises are competitors. AUTO argues that the state and Governor are violating the Washington Constitution by entering into the fuel compacts with Tribes and that the legislative system surrounding the compacts itself is illegal. Never mind that Washington’s approach to the tribal fuel tax conundrum is the state’s attempt to comply with binding federal law related to taxation in Indian Country.

The state Supreme Court accepted review of the Gray’s Harbor Superior Court order dismissing AUTO’s case based on the indispensability of several Washington Indian Tribes, who are necessary parties to the case. The procedural concept of indispensability requires a case to be dismissed if there is a party who should be a part of the case but cannot be joined due to, for instance, sovereign immunity. It can be a muddy procedural doctrine, but it’s one that often protects Tribal interests, since those interests should not be adjudicated unless Tribal sovereigns agree on the forum.

What can we expect? There are several reasons for Washington Indian Country (and Indian Country at large) to be concerned. First, the state Supreme Court decided to review the case. That decision itself can probably be accurately viewed as negative for Tribes since the trial court’s decision appears to have been correct under the Washington Civil Rules and cases interpreting them.

Second, the core of the anti-Tribal dissent in Wright v. CTEC, the last significant Washington Supreme Court on tribal sovereign immunity, remains on the Court. The Justices who will likely participate in AUTO and voted in Wright, are split 3-3 (Justices Chambers, C. Johnson, and J. Johnson against tribal interests v. Justices Madsen, Owens and Fairhurst for them). The addition of Justices Stephens, and Wiggins, possibly with Justice Alexander’s replacement, make this one tough to handicap.

Add the Court’s recent frenetic approach in State v. Eriksen to the mix (affirmation of conviction; reconsideration; withdrawal of opinion; affirmation of conviction; reconsideration; withdrawal of opinion; reversal) and things become even more muddled. Although Eriksen was not a sovereign immunity case, the Court was forced -- or chose -- to examine tribal sovereignty relative to the state in the criminal context. The Court was again well split, this time with Justices Owens, C. Johnson, and Chambers finding, correctly, that the Lummi Nation’s inherent authority justified the detention of a dangerously intoxicated non-Indian driver.

More recent arrivals Justices Stephens and Wiggins made a majority with Justices Fairhurst, Madsen, and J. Johnson, holding that the Lummi Nation could not stop and detain a drunk driver off the Reservation until non-Tribal cops could arrive. Again, Eriksen shares little with AUTO, but taking a simplistic pro- or anti-tribal snapshot of the court suggests that if Justice Alexander, set for mandatory retirement this year, does not participate in AUTO, the court could split as follows, depending on whether Wright or Eriksen describes the voting lines:

AUTO is far more analogous to Wright, as procedural issues of sovereign immunity are at play. And it’s certainly not fair or accurate at this point to cast any justice as anti- or pro-Tribal based on these two cases. Indeed, outside the Tribal bar Wright and AUTO might be viewed as cases more about civil procedure (Rule 19 for AUTO and the CR 12(b) standard for Wright) than Tribal sovereignty. At least the results of AUTO will provide court-watchers with more data for guessing at results.

Still, it’s clear what AUTO is targeting legally. As set forth clearly in its brief, AUTO argues that (1) it can join Tribes in the suit by suing tribal officials in their official capacity and (2) Tribes waived their sovereign immunity, apparently as to AUTO, by entering into the fuel compacts. While these claims seem patently wrong, they are the very type of procedural formalisms anti-Tribal jurists can hide behind in fashioning novel expansions of the law related to Tribal sovereign immunity. Stay tuned.

Anthony Broadman is a partner at Galanda Broadman PLLC, of Seattle, an American Indian majority-owned law firm.  His practice focuses on company-critical business litigation and representing tribal governments. He can be reached at 206.691.3631 or, or or via