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High Court Rules 'Equal Protection' Doesn't Extend To Municipal Taxpayers

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Constitution's guarantee to equal protection of the law does not extend to taxpayers who paid more for a sewer hookup than their neighbors.

The case centered on what essentially amounted to an amnesty program for some taxpayers when Indianapolis switched from one payment system to another.

For decades, Indiana law authorized cities to charge lot owners the cost of sewer hookups. Taxpayers could pay a lump sum up front, or pay monthly, with interest, for up to 30 years. In 2005, Indianapolis adopted a new program, underwritten in part with bonds, because the city thought the old funding mechanism was too burdnesome.

In short, the city thought the old system encouraged people to stick with their septic tanks and discouraged them from switching to healthier — and more expensive — sewer hookups. The city forgave the debt still owed by those who were paying on the installment plan, but it refused to refund the up-front money — as much as $9,278 for taxpayers who had funded the most recent project .

Thirty one homeowners from that most recent project went to court, claiming that they were denied their constiutional right to equal protection of the law, since they paid as much as 30 times more than their neighbors whose debt was forgiven under the new plan. Standing behind them in line were thousands more homeowners who had paid up front for decades, while some of their neighbors were still making installments.

But on Monday, the Supreme Court ruled against the refund claim.

The court said ordinary administrative considerations can justify a tax related distinction.

Writing for the court majority, Justice Stephen Breyer noted that under the Court's precedents, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies to fundamental rights and to distinctions based on race, gender, or ethnic origin. In contrast, he said, administrative concerns can ordinarily justify tax distinctions, as long as they have some rational justification. And in the Indianapolis case, there are many such rational justifications.

It is fairly common in law, he noted, that there are amnesty programs from taxes, parking tickets, and mortgage payments, and that does not mean that others who paid what they owed on time are now eligible for refunds.

Joining Breyer's opinion were Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

Writing for the dissenters, Chief Justice John Roberts agreed with the general principle that the taxing authority gives great leaway to governments. But he said, "every generation or so a case comes along when the court need to say enough is enough," and this is one of those cases.

Joining Roberts in dissent were Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.

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