Commerce Clause

South Dakota v. Wayfair: A Taxing Decision

Today, the Supreme Court handed the states a victory in their battle to collect taxes on online sales, but, in doing so, dealt a heavy loss to the national market, small businesses, and the people at large. South Dakota v. Wayfair’s focus was on whether to overturn Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, which held that states could not impose tax collection obligations on businesses with no physical presence in the state. In a bizarrely split 5-4 decision–with Justice Kennedy writing the majority joined by Thomas, Ginsburg, Alito, and Gorsuch and Chief Justice Roberts writing the dissent joined by Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan–the Court held that states can charge sales taxes on completely out-of-state businesses.

As the dissent rightly points out, the majority decided Wayfair with “an inexplicable sense of urgency,” asserting that “the passage of time is only increasing the need to take the extraordinary step of overruling” longstanding precedent. While wrongly decided cases need to be dealt with, Quill was not one of those decisions. As the chief justice correctly observes in his dissent: “E-commerce has grown into a significant and vibrant part of our national economy against the backdrop of established rules, including the physical-presence rule. Any alteration to those rules with the potential to disrupt the development of such a critical segment of the economy should be undertaken by Congress.” In fact, amicus briefs for various senators and members of Congress were submitted to the Court highlighting the ongoing efforts to fix the e-commerce sales-tax system, and three bills are currently pending. “By suddenly changing the ground rules,” the chief justice warns, “the Court may have waylaid Congress’s consideration of the issue. Armed with today’s decision, state officials can be expected to redirect their attention from working with Congress on a national solution, to securing new tax revenue from remote retailers.”

California Shouldn’t Be Able to Impose Regulations on Businesses Outside of California

One of the several failures of the Articles of Confederation was the incapacity of the central government to deal with trade disputes among the states. The Constitution resolved this problem by empowering the federal government to regulate interstate commerce. It has since become a basic principle of American federalism that a state may not regulate actions in other states or impede the interstate flow of goods based on out-of-state conduct (rather than on the features of the goods themselves).

Stop Using Slippery-Slope Arguments? Where Would that End?

Richard Thaler writes in the New York Times:

Justice Scalia is arguing that if the court lets Congress create a mandate to buy health insurance, nothing could stop Congress from passing laws requiring everyone to buy broccoli and to join a gym…Can anyone imagine Congress passing a broccoli mandate law, much less the court allowing it to take effect?

Yes annnnd…yes. Next question.

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