Monday, June 4, 2012
The question is rather simple: Is tax forgiveness by a municipality present an equal protection violation if reimbursement is not extended to the taxpayers who paid in a timely manner?
The Court's answer in its brief opinion in Amour v. City of Indianapolis is an equally simple "No."
Near the close of oral argument in March, Justice Breyer condensed the question before the Court as whether the city's choices were rational. In today's brief opinion, authored by Breyer, the conclusion is that the city did act rationally in its sewer assessment policies.
Breyer's opinion articulates the matter as one meriting mere rational basis review; the city's act is a "classification neither involving fundamental rights nor proceeding along suspect lines" and thus "cannot run afoul of the Equal Protection Clause if there is a rational relationship between the disparity of treatment and some legitimate governmental purpose.” For the Court, "Indianapolis’ classification has a rational basis. Ordinarily, administrative considerations can justify a tax-related distinction and the city's decision to stop collecting the debts "finds rational support in related administrative concerns." As for the failure to reimburse, to "have added refunds to forgiveness would have meant adding yet further administrative costs, namely the cost of processing refunds."
Yet not all members of the Court agreed with the rationality of the city's scheme. In a dissenting opinion about the same length as the Court's opinion, Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Scalia and Alito,criticized the Court for not adhering to Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Co. v. Commission of Webster Cty., 488 U. S. 336 (1989). The dissenters described Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal as a "succinct and unanimous opinion striking down a property tax scheme in West Virginia on the ground that it clearly violated the Equal Protection Clause" and argued that the Court failed to distinguish it convincingly. The dissenters argued that like Allegheny Pittsburgh, the Indianapolis tax scheme was that "rare case" that comes along "every generation or so" requiring the Court to "say enough is enough, if the Equal Protection Clause is to retain any force in this context."