September 06, 2013 The Tax Lawyer

Armour v. City of Indianapolis: Getting a Raw (Sewage) Deal

Vol. 66, No. 4 - Summer 2013

Kate Fletcher

Abstract

    As Judge Rolfe famously observed in Winterbottom v. Wright: “This is one of those unfortunate cases in which . . . it is, no doubt, a hardship upon the plaintiff to be without a remedy, but by that consideration we ought not to be influenced. Hard cases, it has been frequently observed, are apt to introduce bad law.”1 In Armour v. City of Indianapolis,2 the Supreme Court addressed a hard case. In Armour, the Court rejected the taxpayers’ claim that the City of Indianapolis had violated the Equal Protection Clause3 by collecting from some taxpayers 30 times as much as from their neighbors for the same sewer hookup.4 Given the Court’s decision, there was no remedy for the hardship imposed on the taxpayers by the City of Indianapolis. Although it was clearly a hard case, the Court nonetheless introduced good law. This Note analyzes the Court’s holding against the taxpayers. It argues that the Court’s decision is consistent with precedent and important policy and practical considerations concerning the government’s ability to alter its tax policy. Nevertheless, while the Court reached the right result, the Court’s analysis was flawed. Instead of examining the City’s tax decision under rational basis review, the Court should have adopted a per se rule providing that changes in state and local taxation policy that are fairly implemented do not implicate the Equal Protection Clause. Part II of this Note covers the facts of Armour. Part III outlines the Court’s precedent on the rational basis review standard as relevant to the case. Part IV argues that Armour clarifies the analytical framework for examining tax decisions by state and local governments under rational basis review. The Court’s decision reconciles conflicting case law and is supported by practical and policy considerations. Part V argues that while the Court reached the right result, it should have adopted a per se rule that Armour did not implicate the Equal Protection Clause rather than allowing administrative convenience to serve as a sufficient justification under rational basis review. Part VI concludes that while the Court reached the correct result and clarified the review standard applicable to tax decisions by state and local governments, the analysis was flawed and should be reconsidered.

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