Can Congress Tax Wealth by ‘Deeming’ It Income?

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman

September 2, 2021, in the Wall Street Journal

Charles and Kathleen Moore have done well, but they certainly aren’t billionaires. Yet the couple’s constitutional challenge stands to slam shut the door on a federal wealth tax like the one Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to enact.

The story is complicated, though less so than the tax code. In the 1990s Mr. Moore, a software engineer, worked at Microsoft on its Office applications and grew close to a fellow programmer, Ravi Agrawal. Mr. Agrawal dreamed of returning to his native India to do something for the small-scale farmers he knew growing up in the state of Chhattisgarh.

On a series of trips to India in the early 2000s, he saw an opportunity. Unlike the massive agricultural operations that feed the U.S., capital-poor farmers working a few acres each serve much of India. What struck Mr. Agrawal is that their tools were plainly inadequate, far less reliable and effective than what any American could buy for a few dollars at Home Depot. His idea was to close the gap by providing India’s poorest farmers with tools that would improve their livelihoods and lives, even in the face of the labor shortages in many rural areas as workers migrated to the cities.

Mr. Agrawal needed capital to get the business off the ground. He approached friends to invest in his new company, KisanKraft, and the Moores put up $40,000. It was a lot of money for them, but they believed in Mr. Agrawal and the mission. They knew they were unlikely to earn much of a financial return on their investment, because the plan was to reinvest any profits in the business and serve more of India’s rural poor.

That was the real return, and it proved massive. Mr. Agrawal had put his finger on an unmet need, and by 2017 KisanKraft had expanded to reach the entire country, with hundreds of employees, thousands of dealers and millions of customers. The Moores have never received a dime from their investment, yet it paid off beyond their greatest hope.

Then the tax bill came. As part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, Congress reworked the way multinational corporations are taxed, limiting the amount that they had to pay on foreign income. Offsetting part of the cost was a new, one-time tax on earnings that certain foreign corporations had accumulated over the preceding 30 years but not distributed to their shareholders through dividends. The law deemed those earnings as 2017 income to the shareholders and taxed them on it. The Moores’ bill amounted to $15,000. They paid and are now suing for a refund, on grounds that the new tax is unconstitutional.

The Constitution grants Congress the “power to lay and collect taxes,” but with limits. Article I requires that any “direct tax”—one that falls directly on the payer rather than being passed on to someone else, such as the consumer—“be apportioned among the several states” according to population. The idea was that taxation, like representation, should be fairly apportioned so that no state or region could be singled out for disadvantage. Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist No. 36 that tax apportionment was a key component of federalism, given that direct taxes could disrupt local economies in ways federal lawmakers couldn’t even imagine. By contrast, men of commerce would understand the effects of indirect taxes like tariffs or sales taxes, which the Constitution therefore didn’t subject to apportionment, only uniformity.

The Supreme Court held the first income tax unconstitutional as an unapportioned direct tax in 1895, and Congress eventually responded by proposing the 16th Amendment, ratified in 1913. It authorizes Congress to tax “incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment.”

So far as tax law goes, the Moores’ argument is straightforward. The new tax is a direct tax, and it isn’t on income—after all, they haven’t received any from KisanKraft. Instead, they’re being taxed on their property, the KisanKraft shares. The tax is therefore constitutionally invalid because it isn’t apportioned.

The government insists that the Moores are being taxed on income, because KisanKraft could theoretically distribute its accumulated earnings in the future. The courts, however, have consistently defined “income” to require, as the Supreme Court put it in Commissioner v. Glenshaw Glass (1955), “undeniable accessions to wealth, clearly realized, and over which the taxpayers have complete dominion.” As the Moores observe, they haven’t realized a dime in income. The government argues that the courts should abandon the realization requirement, giving the federal government carte blanche to tax “deemed” income without apportionment.

The stakes of the Moores’ case go well beyond their own tax liability. If they prevail, that would confirm that the Supreme Court’s precedents generally requiring apportionment and limiting the exception for taxes on “income” to its common understanding remain good law, clearly barring any kind of federal property tax, including a wealth tax—unless Congress apportions it, which there is no obvious way to do.

What makes the case an especially attractive vehicle to resolve this issue is the simplicity of their situation, a rarity in tax cases. There’s also the timing: If the courts confirm the 16th Amendment’s limited reach now, that would relieve them from having to do so in a politically explosive case directly challenging a wealth tax. The courts would do well to remind Congress at this opportune time that its taxing power is not without limits.

Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Both practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They represent the Moores in their refund action.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/congress-tax-wealth-courts-constitution-moore-agrawal-kisankraft-elizabeth-warren-11630529642

How the Warren Court Enabled Police Abuse

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman

June 17, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

Senate Republicans have an opportunity to reverse one of Chief Justice Earl Warren’s most pernicious legacies—but they seem determined to blow it. Sen. Tim Scott, who is leading the majority’s police-reform effort, said Sunday that abolishing “qualified immunity,” which protects law-enforcement officers from lawsuits under a law known as Section 1983, is “off the table.” Police unions, Mr. Scott said, view it as a “poison pill.”

Section 1983 originated in the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which opened federal courts to lawsuits challenging civil-rights violations by defendants acting “under color” of state and local law. It provides that violators “shall be liable” to their victims. The idea was that freed slaves could go to court to enforce their newly won constitutional rights.

It didn’t work out that way, and much of the blame lies with the Supreme Court, which in the late 19th century defanged the 14th Amendment, relieving states of their obligation to honor all citizens’ federal rights. The court only began to correct that error in the mid-20th century, proceeding on a right-by-right basis under a doctrine known as incorporation.

What the court gave with one hand, it took away with the other. In Mapp v. Ohio (1961), the justices held that states were obligated to observe the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. But in Pierson v. Ray (1967), they relieved state officials from civil-rights liability unless their actions violated “clearly established law.” That’s “qualified immunity.”

The results can be infuriating. In one recent case, police officers escaped liability for siccing an attack dog on a suspect who was sitting with his hands up. A previous case had found a Fourth Amendment violation, but the court held the precedent didn’t apply because the suspect in the earlier case was lying on the ground. In another case, cops shot a fleeing driver who posed no threat. In another, police stole a collection of rare coins while executing a search warrant. Because such larceny by officers hadn’t arisen in a previous case, the court reasoned, the plaintiff’s right not to have his property stolen by police was not “clearly established.”

To call this a double standard would be an understatement. Civilians are subject to civil and criminal liability when they violate the law, even when their legal obligations aren’t perfectly clear. When state officials violate constitutional rights, qualified immunity often makes it impossible to hold them to account. It’s easy to understand why this disparity inspires cynicism about the rule of law.

Warren’s rationale for qualified immunity was that officials had historically enjoyed immunity for acts taken in “good faith.” He concluded that unless a court had already established that a particular act violated the law, it couldn’t be presumed that Congress intended to impose liability.

But Will Baude of the University of Chicago has demonstrated that there was no general “good-faith defense” for public officials and that qualified immunity can apply even to violations committed in bad faith. Further, Warren’s conclusion about Congress’s intent is at odds with the statute’s language; the words “shall be liable” brook no exception.

The Warren court established qualified immunity at a time when it was rewriting the Constitution by discovering new rights at an astonishing clip. It’s possible the justices worried that imposing liability for violations of the new rights would encourage resistance and stymie the rights revolution.

Yet as the Warren court relieved itself from the strictures of the Constitution, it did the same for state officials. Qualified immunity has made civil-rights litigation such a crapshoot that it does little to deter misconduct, particularly rights violations by police, which can be remedied only after the fact with money damages.

Some conservatives fear that correcting the error of qualified immunity could alter incentives for the worse, by putting police officers at risk of liability for doing their best to protect the public. That concern is misplaced. Other professionals face tort liability irrespective of whether the law on some point was “clearly established” by a prior court decision. No one argues that hinders the practice of law or engineering.

Besides, unlike most other professionals, police are almost always indemnified by their departments. Police departments take advantage of qualified immunity rather than make difficult choices like confronting or firing bad cops, standing up to police unions, or insisting on use-of-force rules that could deter abuses. In these ways, qualified immunity does a disservice to the overwhelming majority of police who take their duties to their communities seriously.

The Roberts court appears disinclined to correct its predecessor’s error, denying review this week in a score of cases asking it to reconsider the doctrine. That means it’s up to Congress. House Democrats are promoting legislation that would eliminate immunity for police officers. The only sound objection is that the Democratic plan stops short of ending the failed experiment of qualified immunity altogether.

Limited to police officers, it would leave the doctrine on the books for other state officials, making the Supreme Court less likely to correct its original error. And it would arbitrarily deny recourse to victims of, say religious discrimination by a mayor or racial discrimination by a licensing officer. All state officials, including the police, should be accountable for respecting constitutional rights.

Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Both practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-the-warren-court-enabled-police-abuse-11592410930

Punishing Climate-Change Skeptics

Some in Washington want to unleash government to harass heretics who don’t accept the ‘consensus.’

By DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. and ANDREW M. GROSSMAN

March 23, 2016 6:29 p.m. in the Wall Street Journal

Galileo Galilei was tried in 1633 for spreading the heretical view that the Earth orbits the sun, convicted by the Roman Catholic Inquisition, and remained under house arrest until his death. Today’s inquisitors seek their quarry’s imprisonment and financial ruin. As the scientific case for a climate-change catastrophe wanes, proponents of big-ticket climate policies are increasingly focused on punishing dissent from an asserted “consensus” view that the only way to address global warming is to restructure society—how it harnesses and uses energy. That we might muddle through a couple degrees’ of global warming over decades or even centuries, without any major disruption, is the new heresy and must be suppressed.

The Climate Inquisition began with Michael Mann ’s 2012 lawsuit against critics of his “hockey stick” research—a holy text to climate alarmists. The suggestion that Prof. Mann’s famous diagram showing rapid recent warming was an artifact of his statistical methods, rather than an accurate representation of historical reality, was too much for the Penn State climatologist and his acolytes to bear.

Among their targets (and our client in his lawsuit) was the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank prominent for its skeptical viewpoint in climate-policy debates. Mr. Mann’s lawsuit seeks to put it, along with National Review magazine, out of business. Four years on, the courts are still pondering the First Amendment values at stake. In the meantime, the lawsuit has had its intended effect, fostering legal uncertainty that chills speech challenging the “consensus” view. Read more »

Symposium: Correcting the “historical accident” of opt-out requirements

By David Rivkin and Andrew Grossman, 27 August 2015 in SCOTUSblog

Whatever the fate of mandatory “fair share” payments that nonmembers are often required to make to fund public-sector unions’ collective bargaining activities, Friedrichs will likely mark the end of requirements that dissenting workers take action to “opt out” of funding public-sector unions’ political and ideological activities, the subject of the second question that the Court agreed to consider. Although less prominent than the forced-payments issue, ending opt-out requirements would correct a serious anomaly in the Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence, one that facilitates tens of millions of dollars annually in union political spending of funds obtained through inertia, trickery, and coercion.

If everyone agrees that forcing public employees to subsidize a labor union’s political or ideological speech impinges their First Amendment rights – and the Court has been unanimous on that point for decades – then what possible justification is there for requiring workers who’ve declined to join the union to go through the arduous process of opting out from making such payments year after year? Put differently, why not allow workers who support a union’s political activities to opt in to funding them, rather than require dissenting workers to play a game of cat and mouse to stop the union from taking their money to fund ideological causes they likely oppose? We’ve never heard a compelling justification for the current “opt out” regime and, like the majority in Knox v. SEIU, suspect that there isn’t one.

Instead, as the Court recounted in Knox, “acceptance of the opt-out approach appears to have come about more as a historical accident than through the careful application of First Amendment principles.” In early cases, workers subject to the Railway Labor Act sought relief from being forced to fund unions’ political activities, and the Court assumed (the statute saying nothing one way or the other) that allowing them to affirmatively object to funding such expenditures would be sufficient to protect their rights. Without any reasoning or analysis, the Court in Abood further assumed that the opt-out approach discussed in those prior statutory cases was sufficient to remedy the First Amendment violation when a public employee is coerced into subsidizing political or ideological speech by the threat of loss of governmental employment. Read more »

Judicial candidates face loss of free speech rights

David B. Rivkin Jr., and Andrew M. Grossman, January 18, 2015

For years, those who favor restrictions on campaign spending have insisted that their real interest lies in fighting corruption, not limiting political speech. Well, here’s a free-speech litmus test: Can a state block candidates from asking for campaign contributions that are themselves legal?

That’s the issue the Supreme Court will face Tuesday in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar. Like most states, Florida elects or retains judges by popular vote. Many of those states prohibit judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions. This restriction, supporters say, prevents corruption, bias and the appearance of bias.

It’s hard to see how. Florida’s law allows contributions of up to $1,000 to judicial campaigns, and that limit cannot be significantly lowered (much less banned) without violating the First Amendment. Florida’s law allows judicial candidates to learn who their contributors are and to ask for other kinds of campaign support, including volunteer work and service on their campaign committees.

But a judicial candidate cannot post a request for support on the campaign website, cannot appear before a local civic group to request contributions, and cannot sign a fundraising letter asking for support. In other words, a candidate can accept contributions, just cannot solicit them. But solicitation is just speech.

That last restriction is the one that bit Lanell Williams-Yulee, a public defender and first-time candidate seeking election to a county court. She made the mistake of signing a letter announcing her candidacy and asking friends to contribute whatever they could. For that, she was reprimanded and fined by the Florida Supreme Court. Read more »

Winning civil justice for Michael Brown and Eric Garner

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew Grossman

The quest for justice for Michael Brown and Eric Garner did not end with the decisions of grand juries not to indict the police officers whose actions led to those men’s deaths. Those frustrated by the grand juries’ dispositions can take comfort in knowing that victims of police violence, as well as their families, can get their day in court.

The family of Garner, who died after being placed in an apparent chokehold by a New York police officer, has already announced plans to sue the officer and the city for $75 million. Michael Brown’s family has not yet said whether they intend to bring a lawsuit against former Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson or the city, but their lawyer has indicated the possibility is being considered.

These suits may succeed where criminal charges failed. To protect against wrongful conviction, criminal charges must be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the highest standard in law. By contrast, civil plaintiffs need convince a jury only that their claims are supported by a “preponderance of the evidence” — a hair more than 50 percent.

Both families could bring claims for wrongful death, arguing that the officers failed to exercise appropriate care in the confrontations that resulted in the deaths of their family members. Such a claim by Garner’s family would be particularly strong, given that the New York Police Department long ago banned chokeholds precisely to prevent choking-related deaths. As for Brown, the circumstances of his death are less clear at this time, but a trial would provide an opportunity for all the facts to come out. If the “hands-up-don’t-shoot” narrative is correct, the Brown family should be able to prevail.

Read more »