This post was co-authored by Cato legal associate Chaim Gordon.
Freedom-loving lawyers everywhere recoil in horror at the mere mention of “footnote four.” In that infamous citation in the 1938 case of Carolene Products, the Supreme Court officially renounced judicial review of laws that infringe on economic liberty. This week, in his dissent from the D.C. Circuit opinion that upheld the individual mandate on Commerce Clause grounds, Judge Brett Kavanaugh added his own dubious “footnote four.”
Judge Kavanaugh’s 65-page dissent was devoted to his parsimonious reading of various provisions in the Internal Revenue Code, culminating in the conclusion that the Anti-Injunction Act robbed federal courts of jurisdiction to hear the case until the mandate penalty is actually enforced. As Judge Kavanaugh noted, “the Tax Code is never a walk in the park.” But the Tax Code is even more grueling when you are given lousy legal advice. And that is why footnote four -- in which Judge Kavanaugh inexplicably decides to publicly thank former IRS commissioners Mortimer Caplin and Sheldon Cohen and their counsel for their amicus brief -- is so troubling. Here is his footnote four:
Both sides before us want this case decided now and contend that the Anti-Injunction Act does not bar this suit. The amicus brief of former IRS Commissioners Mortimer Caplin and Sheldon Cohen, submitted by able counsel Alan Morrison, cogently argued the opposite position. The Court is grateful to amici and counsel for their assistance.
But it is entirely unclear why Commissioners Caplin and Cohen and Counsel Morrison deserve the court’s thanks. For starters, the Caplin and Cohen brief was not advocating either of Judge Kavanaugh’s nuanced readings -- be they correct or not -- of various provisions in the Internal Revenue Code. (It did, however, make one of Kavanaugh’s main arguments in response to one of the government’s arguments toards the end of the brief.) Rather, the Caplin and Cohen brief broadly asserts that the AIA “prevents courts from reviewing all claims involving payments under the Code, not just those labeled taxes.”
The problem is that, in support of this broad, sweeping assertion, the Caplin and Cohen brief misleadingly cites cases that do not support its claim. That is, almost all the cases cited by the Caplin and Cohen brief specifically relied upon the fact that the penalties at issue were found in chapter 68 of the IRC or were part of a larger taxing scheme (as in the Mobile Republican case). But you would not know that from reading the Caplin and Cohen brief.
Take, for example, the Caplin and Cohen brief’s citation to Shaw v. United States and Botta v. Scanlon as “perhaps the best illustration of the breadth of the applicability of” the AIA. What the Caplin and Cohen brief does not say is that both of these cases specifically rely upon provisions in the IRC that define the penalty at issue in those cases (under section 6672) as taxes for the purposes of the AIA. Those provisions, by their own terms, only apply to penalties under chapter 68 of the Code, and the penalty for violating the individual mandate is in chapter 48.
This is really green-eyshade stuff, we know, but that's what this litigation has come to -- and it's why tax lawyers are not suffering the higher rates of unemployment of their peers in other specialties.
To make matters worse, Caplin and Cohen filed essentially the same amicus brief with the Supreme Court in one of the cases that the Court will take up at its cert petition conference this week. This is especially alarming because the government has urged the Court to appoint an amicus counsel to argue for the position that the AIA applies to the penalty for violating the individual mandate (even though the government now agrees with the mandate’s challengers that the AIA does not apply).
We think the justices' clerks are fully capable of advising their bosses on the pro-AIA arguments, which in any event does not apply to the 26 state plaintiffs in the Eleventh Circuit case. Plus the Court has the Fourth Circuit's and now Judge Kavanaugh's thorough "briefs." If the Court does decide to appoint an amicus to argue that issue, however, let's hope that it receives better legal advice than the D.C. Circuit got from Caplin and Cohen.