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Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument in Internet Sales Tax Case

In South Dakota v. Wayfair South Dakota is asking the Supreme Court to overrule precedent and hold that state and local governments may require retailers with no in-state physical presence to collect sales tax. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimated that states lost $23.3 billion in 2012 from being prohibited from collecting sales tax from online and catalog purchases.

In 1967 in National Bellas Hess  v. Department of Revenue of Illinois, the Supreme Court held that per its Commerce Clause jurisprudence, states and local governments cannot require businesses to collect sales tax unless the business has a physical presence in the state.

Twenty-five years later in Quill v. North Dakota (1992), the Supreme Court reaffirmed the physical presence requirement but admitted that “contemporary Commerce Clause jurisprudence might not dictate the same result” as the Court had reached in Bellas Hess.

Customers buying from remote sellers still owe sales tax but they rarely pay it when the remote seller does not collect it. Congress has the authority to overrule Bellas Hess and Quill but has thus far not done so.

Even before oral argument South Dakota could count three votes likely in favor of overturning Bellas Hess and Quill. In March 2015, Justice Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion stating that the “legal system should find an appropriate case for this Court to reexamine Quill.” While on the Tenth Circuit then-judge Gorsuch wrote an opinion strongly implying that given the opportunity the Supreme Court should overrule Quill. Finally, while Justice Thomas voted against North Dakota in Quill he has since rejected the concept of the dormant Commerce Clause, on which the Quill decisions rests.

At oral argument Justices Kennedy and Gorsuch asked Wayfair’s attorney different lines of questions both of which indicated they remain anti-Quill. Justice Thomas, as always, was silent. The most vocal champion of overturning Quill was Justice Ginsburg. She said the Court needs to take responsibility for overturning precedent it created which is no longer appropriate in the current economy instead of relying on Congress to act.

Justice Breyer was clearly torn about the case. He said he read both sides’ briefs and concluded both positions were “absolutely right.” He looked to the attorneys arguing for both sides to help sort out issues including exactly how much money is on the table, whether it really is easy and inexpensive to collect sales tax, and whether tax collection should be retroactive.

Justice Sotomayor lead the charge defending Quill, asking South Dakota’s attorney about many of the same issues Justice Breyer raised—but taking a more certain approach that the answers were known and point to keeping Quill the law of the land. Justice Kagan asked a number of questions expressing the view that Congress should overturn Quill, if it wants to, given that Congress can craft a more complicated solution than the Court can. Justice Alito also didn’t seem particularly sympathetic to South Dakota’s position suggesting that if Quill was overturned states would “grab everything they could” rather than exempt small businesses from having to collect.

Chief Justice Roberts asked questions of both sides, something he has done more often since Justice Scalia died. His questions unfavorable to South Dakota focused on, among other things, the burden of requiring small businesses to collect sales tax and honoring Congress’s decision to leave things the way they are.

The Supreme Court will issue an opinion in this case by the end of June.

Authored By:

Lisa Soronen

Executive Director

State & Local Legal Center

444 North Capitol Street, N.W., Suite 515

Washington, D.C. 20001

Phone: (202) 434-4845

Fax: (202) 737-1069

Email: lsoronen@sso.org

Website: http://www.statelocallc.org/

Twitter: @SLLCSCOTUS

 

South Dakota Asks U.S. Supreme Court to Accept Sales Tax Case

South Dakota has filed a petition in South Dakota v. Wayfair asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a challenge to its law requiring out-of-state retailers to collect sales tax.

In Quill Corp. v. North Dakota (1992), the Supreme Court held that states cannot require retailers with no in-state physical presence to collect sales tax.

In March 2015, Justice Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion stating that the “legal system should find an appropriate case for this Court to reexamine Quill.” Justice Kennedy criticized Quill in Direct Marketing Association v. Brohl for many of the same reasons the State and Local Legal Center stated in its amicus brief. Specifically, internet sales have risen astronomically since 1992 and states and local governments are unable to collect most taxes due on sales from out-of-state vendors.

Following the Kennedy opinion a number of state legislatures passed legislation requiring remote vendors to collect sales tax. South Dakota’s law is the first to be ready for review by the U.S. Supreme Court. In September the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled that the South Dakota law is unconstitutional because it clearly violates Quill and it is up to the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule it.  Continue reading

 

Gorsuch Confirmation Hearings and States and Local Governments: Days 1-3 Update

Confirmation hearings generally follow a predictable course; Judge Gorsuch’s hearings have been no exception. Senators from the other side of the aisle as the President ask the nominee pointed questions on controversial topics which the nominee does his or her best to politely avoid answering. As a result, many issues of interest to states and local governments receive little meaningful attention.

While a friendly Senator (Flake, R-AZ) asked Judge Gorsuch whether a particular case he ruled in was consistent with the “principle of states as laboratories of democracy” and another friendly Senator (Crapo, R-ID) asked Judge Gorsuch to discuss the Tenth Amendment, federalism was rarely discussed as such and preemption wasn’t discussed at all. Likewise, many of the issues of particular importance to local governments—qualified immunity and property rights—also were not discussed.

Judge Gorsuch did say Continue reading

 

One Step Closer to the Supreme Court Ruling on Quill

In  S. Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7669, a state trial court judge in South Dakota has ruled that a South Dakota law requiring remote sellers to collect sales tax is unconstitutional. This ruling was expected for precisely the reason the judge stated—a lower court must follow Supreme Court precedent.  

 In Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, decided in 1992, the Supreme Court held that states cannot require retailers with no in-state physical presence to collect sales tax. The South Dakota law directly contradicts this precedent. Continue reading

 

Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Internet Sales Tax Case

The Supreme Court refused to hear a case involving the question of whether a Colorado law requiring remote sellers to inform Colorado purchasers annually of their purchases and send the same information to the Colorado Department of Revenue is unconstitutional. As is always the case, the Supreme Court gave no reason for denying the petition.

In Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, decided in 1992, the Supreme Court held that states cannot require retailers with no in-state physical presence to collect sales tax. In 2010 the Colorado legislature passed the law described above to improve sales tax collection. The Direct Marketing Association sued Colorado claiming the law unconstitutionally discriminates against interstate commerce and is unconstitutional under Quill.    Continue reading

 

Ohio Supreme Court Refuses to Extend Quill to a Business-Privilege Tax

In Crutchfield v. Testa the Ohio Supreme Court held that Ohio’s commercial activity tax (CAT) applies to online vendors even if they lack a physical presence in the state. More technically, the court refused to extend the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Quill Corp. v. North Dakota (1992), that states cannot require retailers with no in-state physical presence to collect sales tax, to Ohio’s privilege-of-doing-business tax.

The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief arguing in favor of this result. Continue reading

 

State and Local Legal Center Urges Supreme Court to Wait for Right Internet Sales Tax Case

The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief encouraging the Supreme Court to not hear a case arguing that a Colorado law requiring remote sellers to inform Colorado purchasers annually of their purchases and send the same information to the Colorado Department of Revenue is unconstitutional.

Continue reading