South Dakota v. Wayfair

On June 27, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, effective July 31, 2018. This announcement follows last week’s 5-4 decision in South Dakota v. Wayfair, authored by Justice Kennedy, which reversed the physical presence requirement originally established in National Bellas Hess and reaffirmed in Quill. Other important tax (and tax-related) cases have decided by the Supreme Court during Justice Kennedy’s tenure include: Commissioner v. Clark, 489 US 726 (1989); United States v. Goodyear, 493 US 132 (1989); Commissioner v. Soliman, 506 US 168 (1993); Commissioner v. Banks, 543 US 426 (2005); United States v. Home Concrete & Supply, LLC, 566 US 478 (2012); Obergefell v. Hodges, Sup. Ct. Dkt. No. 14-566 (2015); and Pereira v. Sessions, No. 17-459 (2018).

Justice Kennedy was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, and sworn in on February 18, 1988. He won unanimous confirmation. Although considered a conservative jurist, he was also the swing vote in favor of various social issues including same-sex marriage and the right to seek an abortion.

President Trump has already begun the search for Justice Kennedy’s replacement, but confirmation of the president’s nomination will not come without a serious fight. Indeed, whomever President Trump nominates, we can expect the same level of bipartisan animosity for the confirmation hearings as has marred his presidency thus far. Of course, any confirmation will require the Senate’s approval, and given the erosion of a conservative majority in the Senate, confirmation will be no small feat!

On June 21, 2018, the US Supreme Court issued its highly-anticipated decision in South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc., et al., No. 17-494. The 5-4 opinion was authored by Justice Kennedy and concluded that the physical presence requirement established by the Court in its 1967 National Bellas Hess decision and reaffirmed in 1992 in Quill is “unsound and incorrect” and that “stare decisis can no longer support the Court’s prohibition of a valid exercise of the States’ sovereign power.” This opinion will have an immediate and significant impact on sales and use tax collection obligations across the country and is something every company and state must immediately and carefully evaluate within the context of existing state and local collection authority.

Summary of Opinions

The majority opinion was authored by Justice Kennedy and was joined by Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, Alito and Gorsuch. In reaching the conclusion that the physical presence rule is an incorrect interpretation of the dormant Commerce Clause, the opinion states that the Quill physical presence rule: (1) is flawed on its own terms because it is not a necessary interpretation of the Complete Auto nexus requirement, creates market distortions and imposes an arbitrary and formalistic standard as opposed to the case-by-case analysis favored by Commerce Clause precedents; (2) is artificial in its entirety and not just at its edges; and (3) is an extraordinary imposition by the Judiciary. The majority went on to conclude that stare decisis can no longer support the Court’s prohibition of a valid exercise of the States’ sovereign power, noting that “[i]t is inconsistent with this Court’s proper role to ask Congress to address a false constitutional premise of this Court’s own creation.” The majority noted that the South Dakota law “affords small merchants a reasonable degree of protection” and “other aspects of the Court’s [dormant] Commerce Clause doctrine can protect against any undue burden on interstate commerce.” The majority opinion specifically notes that “the potential for such issues to arise in some later case cannot justify an artificial, anachronistic rule that deprives States of vast revenues from major businesses.” Finally, the majority decision provides that in the absence of Quill and Bellas Hess, the first prong of Complete Auto simply asks whether the tax applies to an activity with substantial nexus with the taxing State and that here, “the nexus is clearly sufficient.” Specifically, the South Dakota law only applies to sellers that deliver more than $100,000 of goods or services into the State or engage in 200 or more separate transactions, which “could not have occurred unless the seller availed itself of the substantial privilege of carrying on business in South Dakota.” With respect to other principles in the Court’s dormant Commerce Clause doctrine that may invalid the South Dakota law, the majority held that “the Court need not resolve them here.” However, the majority opinion does note that South Dakota appears to have features built into its law that are “designed to prevent discrimination against or undue burdens upon interstate commerce” including: (1) a safe harbor for small sellers; (2) provisions that prevent a retroactive collection obligation; and (3) the fact that South Dakota is a member of the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement.

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