Today’s post will bring readers up tp date on two significant developments, the first involving the heavily watched Chamber of Commerce case in the Fifth Circuit and the other a Supreme Court opinion in Marinello v US that resolved a circuit split that concerned an important criminal tax issue.
Chamber of Commerce Appeal
One of the more significant tax procedure cases of last year was Chamber of Commerce v IRS, where a district court in Texas invalidated Treasury’s temporary regulation that attempted to put a stop to corporate inversions.
The government appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit, and this week the government filed its brief spelling out why the circuit court should reverse. In addition to arguing that the district court erred in finding that the plaintiff had standing, the government urges the Fifth Circuit to find that the Anti-Injunction Act bars a pre-enforcement challenge to the regulations, and argues that Section 7805 allows it to issue prospective temporary regs without notice and comment.
Treasury’s view on temporary regulations I find strained, as I discuss in the latest update to Chapter 3 Saltzman and Book IRS Practice and Procedure, but I suspect that the AIA may allow the Fifth Circuit to sidestep that issue.
Here is the summary of the government AIA argument from its brief:
But even if plaintiffs have standing, their suit is barred by the Anti-Injunction Act and the tax exception to the Declaratory Judgment Act, which ban the issuance of declaratory and injunctive relief against the assessment or collection of federal taxes. Plaintiffs cannot have it both ways: their contention that they have standing because their members are threatened with increased tax liabilities would necessarily mean that their suit falls squarely within the AIA’s prohibition against suits “for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax.” The District Court erred in its overly restrictive construction of the AIA. The AIA’s prohibition on injunctive relief applies broadly, reaching not only actions directly involving assessment or collection, but also those that might affect assessment or collection indirectly. The AIA clearly bars attempts, such as this one, to enjoin a Treasury Regulation affecting the existence or amount of a tax liability.
The AIA has long been an important barrier walling off IRS/Treasury guidance from pre-enforcement challenges. As we have discussed on PT, with cases like Direct Marketing, which considered the reach of an analogous statute that bars challenges to state tax statutes, advocates have been probing for ways to get courts to consider the procedural and substantive validity of rules such as in this case.
The brief discusses and distinguishes Direct Marketing. No doubt the Chamber of Commerce disagrees. We will keep an eye on this case.
Supreme Court Resolves Split in Circuits on Obstruction Statute
In Marinello v US, the Supreme Court resolved a circuit split involving Section 7212(a), involving the tax specific obstruction statute. The Court held that a conviction under the statute requires that there be an ongoing investigation of the defendant, with the defendant both knew about and intended to obstruct. The opinion leaves open, however, the possibility for a conviction if the proceeding was reasonably foreseeable by the defendant.
In addition to resolving the split, the opinion provides a nice window into competing strands of statutory interpretation. The dissent, penned by Justice Thomas and joined by Justice Alito, relied on a more literal approach. The statute prohibits “corruptly . . . obstruct[ing] or imped[ing], or endeavor[ing] to obstruct or impede, the due administration of this title.” Noting that the title at issue was Title 26, and that encompasses all aspects of the tax code, the dissent, as a few other circuits, would have not limited the statute’s application to situations when there is awareness of (or reason to be aware of) the investigation.
As support for that view, the dissent looks to the Direct Marketing discussion of tax administration, which identified the four components of tax administration as involving “information gathering, assessment, levy, and collection.”
‘[D]ue administration of this Title’ refers to the entire process of taxation, from gathering information to assessing tax liabilities to collecting and levying taxes.
The majority opinion leans on context, looking to related interpretations of the general obstruction statute, a concern that the government’s approach leaves too much discretion to prosecutors and the potential use of the tax obstruction statute to encompass more run of the mill tax misdemeanors.