Increased Transparency in the U.S. Tax Court: Has the Moment Arrived?

By: Leandra LedermanCaptureDocketInquiry1

Transparency is a widely accepted judicial norm. It increases courts’ accountability and thereby increases the confidence and trust litigants and the general public have in courts’ decisionmaking. The comparatively limited access afforded to Tax Court documents is a longstanding issue. The reason Tax Court transparency differs from that of other courts is partly structural, in that the Tax Court isn’t as neatly situated in the federal government’s org chart as Article III courts, administrative agencies, or even Article I courts such as the Court of Federal Claims. (In fact, even which branch of government the Tax Court is located in has presented a puzzle.) Accordingly, the Tax Court traditionally has created many of its own rules and procedures, such as ones governing access to its documents. This means that the question is also partly cultural. As discussed below, access to Tax Court documents has increased over time, and the appointment of several new Tax Court judges may mean that we see further changes in the future.

In the past, the Tax Court’s more limited transparency has sometimes violated judicial norms and has sometimes created access inequities. For example, although the Tax Court is required by statute to make its reports and evidence “public records open to the inspection of the public,” for years the Tax Court kept its Summary Opinions confidential, which I protested in 1998 in a short Tax Notes article called “Tax Court S Cases: Does the ‘S’ Stand For Secret?”.  Although Summary Opinions lack precedential value, they are Tax Court opinions, revealing how the judge deciding the case (typically a Special Trial Judge) thinks about the issues. The Tax Court’s practice of sharing those opinions only with the parties to the case meant that the IRS had a copy of every Summary Opinion but taxpayers typically could not access the opinions in other Small Tax Cases (S cases). This created an uneven playing field. Secrecy can also lead to suspicion of favoritism or other inequities, concerns that existed in an analogous situation, in the era when the IRS did not make Private Letter Rulings (PLRs) public but large firms collected them. Litigation challenging this lack of transparency resulted in legislation, requiring PLRs to be disclosed (with taxpayer information redacted). Continue reading “Increased Transparency in the U.S. Tax Court: Has the Moment Arrived?”

Update on Altera

By: Leandra Lederman

I’m currently at the #SEALS2018 conference in Ft. Lauderdale, but I wanted to quickly note that the opinion of the 9th Circuit panel in Altera Corp. v. Commissioner was withdrawn today. This follows the replacement of Judge Reinhardt, who passed away on March 29, with Judge Graber. Recall that the July 24 opinion in this important case reflected a 2-1 decision, with the late judge in the majority, as Christopher Walker and others had noted. (For my previous coverage of Altera, see here and here.)

A screenshot of the court’s order appears below.  It will be interesting to see what happens after the new panel confers!

Reversing the U.S. Tax Court, 9th Circuit Rules for IRS in Altera

In a 2-1 opinion, a panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has reversed the U.S. Tax Court in Altera v. Commissioner.  (I don’t have a link yet to the opinion because it just came out this morning, but will add it as a comment when I do.) The decision is great news for IRS rulemaking: the Court of Appeals upheld a Treasury regulation in the face of a procedural challenge that alleged that “although Treasury solicited public comments, it did not adequately consider and respond to those responses, rendering the regulations arbitrary and capricious under State Farm.” Altera, slip. op. at 27.  The court found that Treasury’s approach to the regulation (a cost-sharing regulation under Code section 482) satisfied State Farm‘s requirements. Id. at 37. The Court of Appeals also accorded the regulation Chevron deference. Id. at 46.

In my view, this is the right outcome. (Full disclosure: Susan Morse and Stephen Shay spearheaded an amicus brief in the Ninth Circuit in favor of the Commissioner, in which I joined, along with Dick HarveyRuth Mason, and Bret Wells.) Treasury did consider and respond to the comments it received on the regulation; it simply had a different approach to the substance of the regulation than the taxpayers commenting did. The Court of Appeals explains:

“In short, the objectors were arguing that the evidence they cited—showing that unrelated parties do not share employee stock compensation costs—proved that Treasury’s commensurate with income analysis did not comport with the arm’s length standard. Thus, the thrust of the objection was that Treasury misinterpreted § 482. But that is a separate question—one properly addressed in the Chevron analysis. That commenters disagreed with Treasury’s interpretation of the law does not make the rulemaking process defective.”

Alterasupra, at 31-32.

It is worth noting that the court did not address larger questions of the applicability of the APA or Chevron in tax cases, stating in a footnote (and citing Stephanie Hoffer & Chris Walker and Kristin Hickman):

“Because the Commissioner does not contest the applicability of the APA or Chevron in this context, this case does not require us to decide the broader questions of the precise contours of the application of APA to the Commissioner’s administration of the tax system or the continued vitality of the theory of tax exceptionalism.”

Id. at 25 n.5. Dan Shaviro has blogged about the decision on Start Making Sense, noting that “the Chevron standard for reviewing administrative regulations . . . may well be on the Supreme Court’s chopping block in the near future.”

I would expect more coverage of the Altera decision soon. For prior Surly coverage, see here.

IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Burman, “The Rising Tide Wage Credit”

Colloquium pic)
Left to right: Len Burman, Tim Riffle, Leandra Lederman, Karen Ward, Frank DiPietro, Brad Heim

By: Leandra Lederman

On April 5, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law’s Tax Policy Colloquium welcomed Len Burman from Syracuse University and the Urban Institute/Tax Policy Center, who presented “The Rising Tide Wage Credit.” This intriguing new paper is not yet publicly available.

The paper proposes replacing the existing Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) with a new credit, the Rising Tide Wage Credit (RTWC), which, unlike the EITC, would be universal for workers, rather than phased out above low income levels. The RTWC also would differ from the EITC in that the amount of the RTWC would not depend on the number of children the taxpayer has. Instead, the RTWC would be a 100% credit in the amount of a worker’s wages, up to $10,000 of wages. The credit could be claimed on the taxpayer’s tax return, or subject to advance payment via the taxpayer’s employer. Thus, the maximum credit for an unmarried taxpayer would be $10,000, and for a married couple filing jointly would be $20,000. (The credit would not have a marriage penalty.) The credit would be indexed to increase with increases in GDP.

Because the proposed new credit would not vary with the number of children the taxpayer is supporting, the paper also proposes increasing the child tax credit from $2,000 to $2,500, and proposes making the child tax credit fully refundable (rather than partly refundable, as it is under current law). The RTWC and the increase in the child tax credit would be funded by a value added tax (VAT). The paper estimates that the proposal could be fully funded with an 8% VAT, along with federal income tax on the RTWC. A VAT was chosen as the funding mechanism because it is closely correlated with GDP. The paper discusses 3 illustrative examples and includes a table that shows the overall progressivity of the proposal under certain assumptions. Continue reading “IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Burman, “The Rising Tide Wage Credit””

IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Satterthwaite, “Optional Taxation: Survey Evidence from Ontario Microentrepreneurs”

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Left to right: Maicu Díaz de Terán, Tim Riffle, Emily Satterthwaite, Brian Broughman, Leandra Lederman, David Gamage, #taxprofbaby, Pamela Foohey, Austen Parrish

By: Leandra Lederman

On March 22, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law’s Tax Policy Colloquium welcomed Prof. Emily Satterthwaite from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, who presented “Optional Taxation: Survey Evidence from Ontario Microentrepreneurs.” This interesting new paper is not yet publicly available.

The paper explores Canada’s “small supplier” exemption from value-added tax (VAT) registration. Canada’s exemption allows suppliers with less than CAD $30,000 of sales (turnover) in a year to avoid registering for and complying with the VAT unless they opt in. (This amount is not indexed for inflation, and Emily’s paper explains that this threshold is fairly low.) Although it may seem odd for someone to opt into a tax system, as Emily’s paper explains, some small suppliers have incentives to do so: if they buy supplies subject to VAT, they can offset that against VAT owed, and obtain a refund if VAT paid exceeds VAT due. In addition, some small suppliers may be encouraged by their VAT-registered customers to become part of a formal supply chain, because the VAT those customers pay on inputs is creditable. The downside of registering is the cost of doing so, which includes the requirement to file an annual return regardless of whether VAT is owed. Continue reading “IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Satterthwaite, “Optional Taxation: Survey Evidence from Ontario Microentrepreneurs””

IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Ring, “Silos and First Movers In the Sharing Economy Debates”

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Prof. Diane Ring

By: Leandra Lederman

On March 1, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law welcomed Surly’s own Prof. Diane Ring from Boston College Law School as the fourth speaker of the year in our Tax Policy Colloquium. Diane presented a new paper, which I believe is not yet publicly available, titled “Silos and First Movers In the Sharing Economy Debates.” This interesting paper focuses on the classification of workers in the “sharing” or “gig” economy as employees or independent contractors, arguing that “[t]wo interacting forces create the most serious risk for inadequate policy formulation: (1) silos among legal experts, and (2) first-mover effects.” (Page 1 of the draft.) The silo argument is that lawyers operate in subject areas that are isolated from each other, such that tax experts, for example, fail to perceive the effects of tax-related worker-classification rule changes on non-tax (such as employment) law, and vice versa. The first-mover argument is that the first actors on the worker-classification issue can wield outsized influence, shaping the debate in legal contexts other than the one directly affected.

The paper and presentation provide interesting insights into how giants of the service-worker sharing economy—not just Uber and Lyft, but also TaskRabbit—influence the development of the law on worker status. And subject-matter silos are a common complaint among legal academics. That issue has arisen in administrative law, for example, where there may be different rules developed in the context of different agencies. Courts and policymakers may struggle with tax exceptionalism (in the parlance of Kristin Hickman). But I wonder both if the legal silos in the gig economy are as strong as the paper suggests, and whether the effects the paper observes are first-mover effects or something else. Continue reading “IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Ring, “Silos and First Movers In the Sharing Economy Debates””

Stephanie McMahon, “Tax as Part of a Broken Budget: Good Taxes are Good Cause Enough”

By: Leandra Lederman

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Left to right: David Gamage, Leandra Lederman, Stephanie McMahon, Matt Metz (JD/MPA student)

On February 28, Prof. Stephanie McMahon from the University of Cincinnati College of Law gave a faculty workshop at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. She presented her paper titled “Tax as Part of a Broken Budget: Good Taxes are Good Cause Enough.” The thesis of the paper is that Treasury regulations are needed to effectuate the statutory tax laws consistent with Congress’s budgeting expectations, and that given the importance of the revenue raised by taxes to the functioning of the U.S. federal government, tax regulations should be excused from the Administrative Procedure Act’s pre-promulgation notice-and-comment process under the APA’s “good cause” exception. The paper thus tackles two arguments that Prof. Kristin Hickman has advanced in her work: post-promulgation notice and comment is insufficient for tax regulations, and there is no reason for “tax exceptionalism” in administrative procedures. Stephanie’s paper also contains a detailed explanation of the tax legislative process.

Given the importance of tax rulemaking and the difficulties the IRS has suffered with its well-known budget cuts, it is very nice to see a paper defending Treasury’s rulemaking strategy. Moreover, Stephanie’s argument is creative and thoughtful. However, the argument seems to depend on regulations being a critical part of the revenue-raising process, as the need for revenue is what Stephanie relies on to justify application of the good-cause exception. But are regulations needed for that? In explaining the budget process, Stephanie’s paper points out that regulations are not scored as part of that process. I think she agrees that tax statutes can raise revenue even in the absence of regulations. Instead, she argues that regulations help effectuate, albeit imperfectly, Congress’s scoring of the tax legislation. But some Internal Revenue Code sections do not expressly call for regulations. Others do, but some of the latter never actually see regulations promulgated. Yet, the tax laws are applied despite these “spurned delegations.” And given President Trump’s anti-regulation Presidential Executive Order on Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs, we may see more tax statutes operating without regulations. Continue reading “Stephanie McMahon, “Tax as Part of a Broken Budget: Good Taxes are Good Cause Enough””

IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Glogower, “Taxing Inequality”

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Left to right: Damage Gamage, Ari Glogower, Leandra Lederman, Tim Riffle

By: Leandra Lederman

On February 15, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law welcomed Prof. Ari Glogower from Ohio State University Moritz College of Law as the third speaker of the year in our Tax Policy Colloquium. Ari presented his paper titled “Taxing Inequality,” which argues in favor of a federal wealth tax and proposes a mechanism for integrating the base of such a tax with the base of the federal income tax. Ari’s paper sparked a really interesting discussion both in and outside the workshop on a wide range of issues, from distributive justice to the mechanics and likely impacts of his proposal.

The paper focused first on why we should have a federal tax on wealth. The draft points to rising economic inequality, and it grounds the need for a wealth tax in the theory of “relative economic power.” That theory, borrowed from political science, focuses on spending power—as opposed to actual spending—as a source of economic power. The basic idea is that the mere ownership pf wealth creates economic power without spending it. Moreover, “excessively unequal distributions of economic resources and market power can result in unequal divisions of political and social power as well.” (p.19) One of Ari’s paper’s contributions is to apply this economic-power theory as a justification for a progressive tax system.

The draft then describes the problem that tax-system designers have in imposing both a wealth tax and an income tax. Because the two types of taxes are imposed on different bases, if the taxes are not coordinated, taxpayers with very different abilities to pay based on their income or wealth may be taxed identically. The paper includes some nice examples of taxpayers with the same income but vastly different stocks of wealth and vice versa. It shows, for example, that a taxpayer with $200,000 of current income and no wealth (or negative wealth in the form of student-loan debt) has lower ability to pay than a taxpayer with $200,000 of current income and $35 million in wealth. (Ari’s talk included a great slide featuring an image of Scrooge McDuck swimming in money as the wealthy taxpayer, but for whatever reason, he resisted our suggestion to rename the paper “Taxing Scrooge McDuck”!) Continue reading “IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Glogower, “Taxing Inequality””

#TaxValentines

Heart1By: Leandra Lederman

It’s the time of year when tax experts are Twitterpated! Yes, on tax Twitter, it’s not Singles Awareness Day, but rather time for #TaxValentines! Twitter member Jeremy Cape reportedly started them a few years ago. Many of the valentines take the traditional format of the classic love poem, such as this never-before-tweeted basic tax valentine:

Roses are red

Violets are blue

I adore taxes

And I also love you

 

I like to play with the second line, such as in this one that I tweeted last year:

 

This next one plays with “rose” and is also a public service announcement:

 

Some of the tax valentines include plays on words, political commentary, and/or comments on recent tax developments. Here’s an example, with my follow-up, too:

Continue reading “#TaxValentines”