Tax

The Supreme Court’s holding in North Carolina Department of Revenue v. Kimberley Rice Kaestner 1992 Family Trust is narrow, precise, and unanimous. The presence of in-state beneficiaries alone does not allow a state to tax undistributed trust income where the beneficiaries have no right to demand that income and may never receive it.

The Kimberley Rice Kaestner trust is governed by New York law and its trustee is a New York resident who has “absolute discretion” to distribute the trust. When the trustees, Kimberley Rice Kaestner and her children, lived in North Carolina the state taxed the income of the trust even though no funds were distributed during the time period. The trust sued North Carolina seeking the $1.3 million it paid in taxes. The trust argued that the tax violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  

In December 2018 a federal district court declared the Affordable Care Act (ACA) individual mandate unconstitutional. It also declared the remaining provisions of the act “inseverable,” meaning also invalid. The court didn’t issue a nationwide injunction which would have had the effect of immediately ceasing all aspects of law.

In the district court litigation the Department of Justice (DOJ) didn’t defend the individual mandate. But it did argue that other provisions of the ACA, excluding the guaranteed-issue and community-rating requirements, which were intended to provide affordable health insurance for those with pre-existing conditions, were severable. Now DOJ has informed the Fifth Circuit that it has changed course and agrees with the lower court that the entire ACA was properly invalidated.

As Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den illustrates, not all 5-4 Supreme Court cases involve high-profile, controversial issues where the Justices are divided on ideological lines.

In this case the Supreme Court held 5-4 that a treaty forbids the State of Washington from imposing a tax upon members of the Yakama Nation that import fuel.

An 1855 treaty between the United States and the Yakama Nation reserves to the Yamakas “the right, in common with the citizens of the United States, to travel upon all public highways.” A Washington statute taxes fuel importers who bring large quantities of fuel into the state by ground transportation. Cougar Den is a wholesale fuel importer owned by a Yakama member that transports fuel by truck from Oregon to Yakama-owned gas stations in Washington. Cougar Den argued the treaty preempted the tax.

This case would have been a lot more interesting had it gone the other way. In an unanimous decision the Supreme Court held in Dawson v. Steager that West Virginia violated a federal statute by taxing all the retirement benefits of former federal law enforcement employees but not certain state law enforcement employees.

4 U.S.C. § 111 allows states to tax the pay of federal employees only “if the taxation does not discriminate . . . because of the source of the pay or compensation.” James Dawson, a former U.S. Marshal, sued West Virginia alleging it violated this statute because it taxed his pension but not the pensions of certain state law enforcement employees. The West Virginia Supreme Court found no discrimination because relatively few state employees received the tax break and the statute’s intent was to benefit those state retirees not harm federal retirees.

While a federal district court struck down the Affordable Care Act as unconstitutional on December 14, the Act and the litigation will continue. The judge didn’t issue a nationwide injunction which would have had the effect of immediately ceasing all aspects of law.

Unsurprisingly, the states defending the law have stated they will appeal this ruling to the Eleventh Circuit. Particularly if the Eleventh Circuit agrees with the lower court the Supreme Court is likely to hear this case though not until its next term beginning October 2019.

The Affordable Care Act individual mandate required uninsured who didn’t purchase health insurance to pay a so-called shared-responsibility payment. In 2012 the Supreme Court held the individual mandate is a constitutional “exercise of Congress’s Tax Power because it triggered a tax.” The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 reduced the tax to $0 as of January 1, 2019.

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