Thursday, January 30, 2014
The Fourth Circuit ruled this week in Montgomery County, Maryland v. Federal National Mortgage Association that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac enjoy statutory immunity certain state and local taxes--and that this congressionally granted immunity is not unconstitutional.
The ruling is a rejection of some of the more aggressive states'-rights theories that we've heard in other contexts. It underscores federal supremacy, even in the area of state and local taxes. It's not a surprising ruling, but the court's flat rejection of certain of the plaintiffs' states-rights arguments is notable.
The case arose out of Fannie's and Freddie's refusal to pay state and local transfer and recording taxes on foreclosed properties that they sought to sell. Fannie and Freddie cited their federal statutory exemption, which exempts Fannie and Freddie generally from state and local taxes, "except that any real property of [either entity] shall be subject to State, territorial, county, municipal, or local taxation to the same extent as other real property is taxed."
The court distinguished between property taxes (not exempt under the statute) and transfer taxes (exempt) and ruled that Fannie and Freddie were exempt under the plain language.
But that's not the interesting part. The court also ruled that Congress had authority to grant the exemption, and that it didn't run afoul of federalism principles.
The court rejected the plaintiffs' contention that Fannie's and Freddie's property sales were local in nature, and therefore outside Congress's Commerce Clause authority. "In this case, the overall statutory schemes establishing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are clearly directed at the regulation of interstate economic activity." The court also rejected the novel contention that the sweep of congressional authority here should be judged under a strict scrutiny standard (and not traditional rational basis review), because the exemption intruded into an area of state sovereignty. "The Counties' analogy to the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments fails because there is not independent constitutional protection for the States' right to tax."
The court also rejected the plaintiffs' contentions that the exemption violated federalism principles. The court said that the exemption didn't commandeer states or state officials, that it didn't violate the Tenth Amendment (because Congress acted within its Commerce Clause authority), and that Congress can exempt non-government entities like Fannie and Freddie.