Argument recap: Court explores different avenues for resolving tax case
on Jan 20, 2012 at 5:00 pm
Alan Horowitz is a member of Miller & Chevalier Chartered, where he heads the Supreme Court and Appellate Practice Group. He served for 11 years as an Assistant to the Solicitor General, including four years as the Tax Assistant, where he argued 28 cases in the Supreme Court and briefed many others. He regularly covers tax issues pending in the appellate courts at the Tax Appellate Blog, http://appellatetax.com.
On January 17, the Court heard argument in United States v. Home Concrete and Supply Co., which involves the scope of the extended six-year statute of limitations applicable when a taxpayer “omits from gross income an amount properly includible therein.” The case presents two main issues: (1) whether that statutory language covers overstatements of tax basis, even though the Supreme Court construed the same phrase in a predecessor statute not to do so; and, (2) if the Court does not accept the government’s statutory argument, whether it must defer to a recent Treasury regulation that adopts the government’s proffered interpretation. The argument was lively, with all Justices save Justice Thomas asking questions at some point. It was also somewhat disjointed, as the discussion jumped from topic to topic without any obvious agreement among the Justices concerning which issue would be the ground for resolving the case.
Arguing on behalf of the United States, Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart began by making a determined effort to persuade the Court that it should prevail on a standard statutory analysis without the need to resort to Chevron deference. In response to questions from the Chief Justice and Justice Scalia suggesting that the Court’s decision in Colony, Inc. v. Commissioner derails that argument from the start, Stewart argued that Colony did not purport to give a definitive definition of the “omits from gross income” language wherever it appears in the Code. Rather, it just interpreted the language for the 1939 Code, and the 1954 Code should be read differently because of the additional subsections that were added.
Several Justices (the Chief Justice, Justice Scalia, and Justice Sotomayor) expressed skepticism that Congress would have used such an obscure mechanism to change the interpretation of the “omits from gross income” phrase. Stewart responded that he would agree if Colony had been on the books when the 1954 Code was enacted. But in fact Colony was not decided until 1958, and Congress was acting against the backdrop of the existing circuit conflict on the meaning of the 1939 Code. Justices Kennedy and Scalia immediately questioned that response, stating that it is “very strange” to say that the same language would have a different meaning depending upon when Colony was decided. Justice Scalia then elaborated on his skepticism over the government’s attempts to prevail on the statute alone, stating that “we’re not writing on a blank slate here.” “I think Colony may well have been wrong, but there it is. It’s the law. And it said that that language meant a certain thing.”
At that point, Justice Kagan sought to rescue Stewart by interjecting that the government has two arguments and the second one – that Treasury had the power to reinterpret the statute in regulations – was independent of Colony’s interpretation of the statutory language. Although Stewart first tried to steer the Court back to the statute, Justice Kagan persisted, and the Chief Justice then entered the fray to question the linchpin of the government’s deference argument – namely, that Colony had found the statute to be “ambiguous.” The Chief Justice pointed out that Justice Harlan, in using that word in 1958, “was writing very much in a pre-Chevron world” and likely was using the word not as “a term of art,” but rather in an attempt to be gracious to the lawyers and courts that had taken the opposite position. Justice Ginsburg, however, pointed out that the Court had characterized the new subsection in the 1954 Code as “unambiguous” and therefore should be taken at its word that the 1939 Code was ambiguous.
Another line of questioning explored the extent to which there was ever a well-entrenched view that Colony controlled the meaning of the 1954 Code. Stewart rejected the taxpayer’s position that everyone understood Colony as controlling prior to the Son-of-BOSS litigation, stating that there was a “surprising dearth of law” on the point, but the only arguably relevant case was a 1968 Fifth Circuit decision that suggested that Colony was not controlling. The taxpayer and the Fifth Circuit dispute that reading of the case. (No one observed that the likely reason there was no case law on this issue was because the IRS accepted Colony as controlling and therefore never attempted to invoke the six-year statute for overstatements of basis.) Justice Breyer asked about a 2000 IRS guidance document that appeared to adopt the taxpayer’s view of Colony, but government counsel dismissed it as merely the view of a single District Counsel. That prompted the Chief Justice to ask acerbically “at what level of the IRS bureaucracy can you feel comfortable that the advice you are getting is correct?”
When former Solicitor General Gregory Garre took the podium on behalf of the taxpayer, Justice Kagan asked why Congress had added the new subsection addressing a trade or business. Garre argued that it was designed to resolve the Colony issue favorably to the taxpayer, noting that there was nothing problematic about the fact that the new subsection addressed the specific problem of cost of goods sold instead of explicitly sweeping more broadly. That answer triggered a more extensive discussion of why Congress acted as it did and whether it was drawing a distinction between sales of goods and services (addressed in the new subsection) and sales of real estate (at issue in Colony).
The key administrative law precedent at issue on the deference argument is National Cable & Telecommunications. Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Services, in which the Court accorded deference to a regulation that overturned existing court of appeals precedent. The Court did not show any interest in backing away from Brand X, but it did suggest that it might read the case somewhat more narrowly than the government would like. In Brand X, Justice Stevens wrote a short concurring opinion stating that the holding would not apply to a Supreme Court opinion because at that point no ambiguity would be left. At the beginning of the argument, Justice Scalia echoed that view when he objected to Stewart’s reliance on the statement in Colony that the statute was “not unambiguous” by observing: “Yes, but once we resolve an ambiguity in the statute, that’s the law and the agency cannot issue a regulation that changes the law just because going in the language was ambiguous.” The Chief Justice returned to this point at the argument’s close. He asked the only questions during the government’s rebuttal argument, seeking to confirm that the Court has never applied Brand X to one of its own decisions – that is, that “we’ve never said an agency can change what we’ve said the law means.”
The more open-ended issue concerning the scope of Brand X is what exactly was meant in that case by the statement that the judicial construction can trump a later regulation “only if the prior court decision holds that its construction follows from the unambiguous terms of the statute and thus leaves no room for agency discretion.” The Court’s exploration of this point began with a lighthearted comment by Justice Scalia that the question in the case boils down to whether indeed Colony meant “ambiguous” when it used that term. Justice Alito followed up, however, pointing out that every statutory interpretation question in the Supreme Court “involve[s] some degree of ambiguity . . ., [s]o what degree of ambiguity is Brand X referring to?”
Garre’s response to this question was to go back to the original Chevron decision, which “looks to whether Congress has addressed the specific question presented.” Under that approach, Colony should be regarded as having found the degree of clarity necessary to insulate it from being overturned by regulation, because the Court concluded that Congress had addressed this specific question. Justice Kagan, later seconded by Justice Ginsburg, questioned that approach, commenting that the relevant question is “how clearly did Congress speak to that specific situation?” Because the Colony Court stated that the text was ambiguous and had to do a lot of “tap dancing” through the legislative history to resolve the case, she stated that Colony must be read as indicating “a lot of ambiguity.” Justice Breyer then jumped in to express agreement with the taxpayer’s argument that the Colony Court’s resort to legislative history was just a standard mode of statutory construction that did not require treating that case as finding an ambiguity under Brand X. Instead, Justice Breyer stated, “[t]here are many different kinds of ambiguity and the question is, is this of the kind where the agency later would come and use its expertise”?
The argument devoted relatively little attention to the retroactivity question. The Chief Justice observed that, in light of Brand X, a taxpayer could never feel confident about a tax precedent because the IRS can change the rule and apply it retroactively. This observation, however, did not obviously elicit much concern from the other Justices, with the notable exception of Justice Breyer who had stated early on that it was “unfair” for the IRS to promulgate “a regulation which tries to reach back and capture people who filed their return nine years before.” Later, Justice Breyer acknowledged that merely tagging the retroactivity as unfair “is not enough” and asked Garre an incredibly long question designed to explore possible justifications for avoiding the retroactive application of the regulations even if the Court were to defer to them on a prospective basis. These ideas, however, did not appear to gain any traction with the other Justices.
Predicting the outcome on the basis of this oral argument is dicey. Justice Kagan appeared sympathetic to the government’s position, while Justice Breyer was very troubled by the unfairness of it. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor seemed to tilt towards the government. But most of the Justices expressed enough difficulty with both sides that their votes cannot reasonably be forecast. Overall, however, it did appear that the Court is more likely heading towards a relatively narrow decision than towards one that would break new ground in administrative law. The Court’s approach to Colony will likely be critical. If the Court treats Colony as precedential with respect to the 1954 Code, as it was generally regarded for fifty years, then it would not be difficult to rule for the taxpayer. Brand X might be distinguished because Colony is a Supreme Court decision, or perhaps on the ground that the case should not be treated as finding an “ambiguity” in Chevron terms. Conversely, if the Court views Colony as inapplicable to the 1954 Code, then, notwithstanding Justice Scalia’s observation to the contrary, the Court will essentially be writing on a blank slate. If so, Brand X would likely lead to a ruling for the government.