Monday, June 15, 2009

'Vast There!

Sometimes it's hard to read a judicial opinion without hearing people cry "Hard-a-port! Man the Scuppers!" in the background. Today's opinion in Polar Tankers, Inc. v. City of Valdez, Alaska fits the bill, as the Supreme Court struck down a city tax because it violated the Constitution's Duty of Tonnage Clause.

The what? That's right, Article I, section 10, clause 3 of the Constitution provides that "No State shall, without the Consent of Congress, lay any Duty of Tonnage." You missed that in your Constitutional Law class? Frankly, so did I, but remember that in the Framers' day shipping and maritime matters were vital.

The City of Valdez imposed a personal property tax on large ships that traveled to and from the city -- with exemptions that effectively limited the tax to oil tankers. Ah, but our Framers had anticipated taxes like this. They didn't want coastal states to take advantage of their favored geographical position by imposing taxes that would burden inland states. So, even though a "duty of tonnage" is literally only a tax on the cubic capacity of a ship, the Supreme Court has struck down "all taxes and duties regardless of their name or form, and even though not measured by the tonnage of the vessel, which operate to impose a charge for the privilege of entering, trading in, or lying in a port." Valdez's tax was, effectively, a charge for the use of its ports, so it got struck down.

Our eighteenth century ancestors still rule us today. And they cry "Hard-a-port!" as they do.

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