Property Taxes.

The state’s latitude of discretion is notably wide in the classification of property for purposes of taxation and the granting of partial or total exemption on the grounds of policy,1585 whether the exemption results from the terms of the statute itself or the conduct of a state official implementing state policy.1586 A provision for the forfeiture of land for nonpayment of taxes is not invalid because the conditions to which it applies exist only in a part of the state.1587 Also, differences in the basis of assessment are not invalid where the person or property affected might properly be placed in a separate class for purposes of taxation.1588

Early cases drew the distinction between intentional and systematic discriminatory action by state officials in undervaluing some property while taxing at full value other property in the same class—an action that could be invalidated under the Equal Protection Clause—and mere errors in judgment resulting in unequal valuation or undervaluation—actions that did not support a claim of discrimination.1589 Subsequently, however, the Court in Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Co. v. Webster County Comm’n,1590 found a denial of equal protection to property owners whose assessments, based on recent purchase prices, ranged from 8 to 35 times higher than comparable neighboring property for which the assessor failed over a 10-year period to readjust appraisals.

Then, only a few years later, the Court upheld a California ballot initiative that imposed a quite similar result: property that is sold is appraised at purchase price, whereas assessments on property that has stayed in the same hands since 1976 may rise no more that 2% per year.1591 Allegheny Pittsburgh was distinguished, the disparity in assessments being said to result from administrative failure to implement state policy rather than from implementation of a coherent state policy.1592 California’s acquisition-value system favoring those who hold on to property over those who purchase and sell property was viewed as furthering rational state interests in promoting “local neighborhood preservation, continuity, and stability,” and in protecting reasonable reliance interests of existing homeowners.1593

Allegheny Pittsburgh was similarly distinguished in Armour v. City of Indianapolis,1594 where the Court held that Indianapolis, which had abandoned one method of assessing payments against affected lots for sewer projects for another, could forgive outstanding assessments payments without refunding assessments already paid. In Armour, owners of affected lots had been given the option of paying in one lump sum, or of paying in 10, 20 or 30-year installment plan. Despite arguments that the forgiveness of the assessment resulted in a significant disparity in the assessment paid by similarly-situated homeowners, the Court found that avoiding the administrative burden of continuing to collect the outstanding fees was a rational basis for the City’s decision.1595

An owner aggrieved by discrimination is entitled to have his assessment reduced to the common level.1596 Equal protection is denied if a state does not itself remove the discrimination; it cannot impose upon the person against whom the discrimination is directed the burden of seeking an upward revision of the assessment of other members of the class.1597 A corporation whose valuations were accepted by the assessing commission cannot complain that it was taxed disproportionately, as compared with others, if the commission did not act fraudulently.1598

Footnotes

1585
F.S. Royster Guano Co. v. Virginia, 253 U.S. 412, 415 (1920). back
1586
Missouri v. Dockery, 191 U.S. 165 (1903). back
1587
Kentucky Union Co. v. Kentucky, 219 U.S. 140, 161 (1911). back
1588
Charleston Fed. S. & L. Ass’n v. Alderson, 324 U.S. 182 (1945); Nashville C. & St. L. Ry. v. Browning, 310 U.S. 362 (1940). back
1589
Sunday Lake Iron Co. v. Wakefield, 247 U.S. 350 (1918); Raymond v. Chicago Traction Co., 207 U.S. 20, 35, 37 (1907); Coutler v. Louisville & Nashville R.R., 196 U.S. 599 (1905). See also Chicago, B. & Q. Ry. v. Babcock, 204 U.S. 585 (1907). back
1590
488 U.S. 336 (1989). back
1591
Nordlinger v. Hahn, 505 U.S. 1 (1992). back
1592
505 U.S. at 14–15. back
1593
505 U.S. at 12–13. back
1594
566 U.S. ___, No. 11–161, slip op. (2012). back
1595
566 U.S. ___, No. 11–161, slip op. at 7–10. back
1596
Sioux City Bridge v. Dakota County, 260 U.S. 441, 446 (1923). back
1597
Hillsborough v. Cromwell, 326 U.S. 620, 623 (1946); Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Co. v. Webster County Comm’n, 488 U.S. 336 (1989). back
1598
St. Louis-San Francisco Ry v. Middlekamp, 256 U.S. 226, 230 (1921). back