Opinion analysis: Court adopts broad standards for adjudicating what constitutes a tax discrimination under the 4-R Act
on Mar 5, 2015 at 12:40 pm
Neither side came away with a clear victory in the Court’s decision in Alabama Department of Revenue v. CSX Transportation, Inc., as the Court remanded the case to the Eleventh Circuit. Again. The clear loser in the case is the Eleventh Circuit, which has been given the specific task that the court of appeals had already eschewed as “Sisyphean.” Justice Scalia wrote the majority decision. Justice Thomas wrote the dissent, with Justice Ginsburg signing on. This is the second time that Justices Thomas and Ginsburg dissented on the same issue in the same case.
The issue in the case was interpretation of Section 11501(b)(4) of the [4-R] Act, which prohibits a state from “impos[ing] another tax that discriminates against a rail carrier.” Alabama imposes a general sales tax, which includes tax on the sale of diesel fuel to railroads, but motor and water carriers (i.e., trucks and boats) are exempt from paying this tax on their fuel. The Court held that the appropriate comparison class for assessing discrimination under the Act can vary depending on the alleged discrimination. In this case, the Court found that CSX properly alleged that motor and water carriers, as competitors to railroads, were a proper comparison class.
The Court also held that “discrimination” in the statute requires some analysis of a state’s overall tax system. It is not enough, as CSX argued, to look to the burden imposed by one tax in isolation when there could be another tax that demonstrates that there is, in fact, not an unlawful discrimination. It is true that only the railroads pay the sales tax on their fuel, but Alabama countered that this did not amount to discrimination because motor carriers, but not railroads, had to pay an excise tax on diesel fuel. The Eleventh Circuit refused to consider this argument, but it will have to consider it on remand as the Supreme Court has now held that the statute requires an assessment whether there is a “roughly equivalent” tax that offsets an apparently discriminatory tax.
As for the issue of comparison class, oral argument already strongly indicated that a majority of the Justices were not going to accept the limitation on what can constitute the class that was proposed by the state and that had been proposed by Justices Thomas and Ginsburg in dissent the last time this case was before the Court. The anti-discrimination provision at issue is in subsection (b)(4), which does not explicitly state what the proper comparison class would be. However, subsections (b)(1)-(3) of the same provision do explicitly indicate such a class, namely “commercial and industrial” property. The majority found that this limitation does not carry over from the first three subsections to the last, primarily because the earlier subsections were specifically about the property tax and the final residual provision is not so limited.
Once the Court found that this limitation did not restrict subsection (b)(4), the question becomes just what does constitute a comparison class. Here the Court provided only broad guidance. On the one hand, the analysis as to what constitutes a comparison class cannot be the same as would be performed in connection with the Equal Protection Clause. This is because, as to economic matters, the Equal Protection Clause permits very fine distinctions. As the Court explained, importing this analysis into the analysis of the 4-R Act “would deprive subsection (b)(4) of all real-world effect, providing protection that the Equal Protection Clause already provides.” The right analysis as to proper comparison class must take into account the purpose of the 4-R Act, and here the opinion cites the statute: to “restore the financial stability of the railway system of the United States, [while] foster[ing] competition among all carriers by railroad and other modes of transportation.” Given this purpose, the Court agrees that competitors, such as motor carriers, can be an appropriate comparison class. As for other possible comparison classes, the Court put that question to the side, exclaiming that “[s]ufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
As to how to do the discrimination analysis, the Court explained that “it does not accord with ordinary English usage to say that a tax discriminates against a rail carrier if a rival who is exempt from that tax must pay another comparable tax from which the rail carrier is exempt.” In other words, how can there be an unlawful discrimination if in reality the railroads were no worse off than their competitors? The Court therefore “could not approve” the Eleventh Circuit’s refusal to consider Alabama’s argument that its fuel excise tax is the “rough equivalent” of its sales tax on diesel fuels. Though the Court was “inclined to agree” that this is not the kind of analysis that courts are likely to do well, it is nevertheless the duty of courts to try because that is the task Congress assigned them “by drafting an antidiscrimination command in such sweeping terms.”
Both as to the question of comparison class and as to the question of the scope of analysis, the Court’s opinion adopted an interpretation of the statute that requires courts to apply broad standards. Justice Thomas in dissent does more than just argue for his reading of the statute; he also needles the majority about reaching a “predictably unworkable” result.
A concluding observation. The dormant Commerce Clause also forbids discrimination in taxation, and thus the Court has already analyzed what constitutes discrimination in taxation at some length. And, in the dormant Commerce Clause cases, as noted very briefly in the opinion in this case, the Court has long accepted the possibility that states can defend themselves from a charge of discriminatory taxation by showing that there is some other compensating tax. By referring back to an early (1932) dormant Commerce Clause case, the majority opinion appears to accept that this piece of conceptual analysis is sound. Yet a lot has happened since 1932. In particular, the Court developed the so-called complementary tax doctrine, complete with its own three-part test, which has been applied fairly recently . The doctrine was also discussed in the briefs, including that of the United States, which appeared as an amicus in support of neither party. This is especially significant because the Court largely followed the disposition of this case proposed by the United States in its brief and at oral argument.
What does it mean that the complementary tax doctrine made no appearance in the majority opinion? Rather than reference the doctrine, the majority used a form of the phrase “rough equivalent” twice, along with “roughly comparable,” to describe what the Eleventh Circuit must assess. Is this standard stricter or looser than the complementary tax doctrine? Is this doctrine not mentioned because the Court finds it unsatisfactory or only applicable to dormant Commerce Clause cases? The opinion does not answer these questions, but perhaps we will find out what the Court thinks if – when? – this case returns to the Court for a third time.