U.S. Supreme Court Sales Tax Reversal… Where To From Here?
© 2018 by Jeffrey A Babener
(First Published in World of Direct Selling)
The future ain’t what it used to be.
Or maybe it is. In ancient Egypt the pharaohs placed a general tax on the sale of all commodities at the rate of 5% of sale price. The Romans obviously thought this was a good idea and, after their conquest of Egypt, the rate rose to 10%. For the next 2,000 years, to this day, bureaucrats have found sales tax a favorite revenue raiser.
The Bombshell… Deja vu, all over again.
In South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc. June 21, 2018. Slip Opinion 17-494, 585 U.S. ____ (2018). The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a 50 year old precedent on how states can tax sales by out-of-state retailers, holding that its earlier 1967 and 1992 decisions were wrong, and that it needed to rectify its mistake to reflect the economic reality of today’s interstate commerce to prevent discrimination against local brick and mortar retailers that favored online out-of-state retailers. Effectively, it abandoned a decades old bright line analysis that the “physical presence” nexus that justified states to impair interstate commerce, in violation of the Commerce clause of the Constitution was being replaced by a more “amorphous” standard of an “economic reality” impact of out-of-state sellers in states that sought to impose sales and use taxes.
Impact and Response to this “missile” on contact:
For most online sellers: a thermonuclear explosion…life will never be the same.
(Keep in mind that one of the largest online sellers, Amazon, recognized the future, and had already undertaken to collect sales tax in the 45 states that impose sales/use taxes, although most of its third party vendors have not.)
For direct sellers, who sell both online and offline:
More like momentary eclipse of the sun…back to business; they have already been collecting and paying sales/use tax for decades.
Actually, says direct selling, “thank you for leveling the playing field.”
And, as to all online sellers, whether direct sellers or not, “no thank you” long term for an expected flood of creative new state taxes that will develop over the next 20 years in our “virtual and gig” economy. This is just the beginning.
First, What Just Happened?
As summarized by the Court in its syllabus and majority and dissenting opinions:
Wayfair is a major online retailer of home furnishings. Although it has substantial sales into South Dakota, it has no physical presence in South Dakota. Until the Wayfair case, 50 years of court precedent prevented states from impairing interstate commerce, in violation of Commerce Clause, U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 3, by imposing a duty on out-of-state retailers who had no “nexus” with the state. And for the Supreme Court, “nexus” required physical presence. Two famous cases set the bright line mandate of physical presence: National Bellas Hess, Inc. v. Department of Revenue of Ill., 386 U.S. 753 (1967), and Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, 504 U.S. 298 (1992). Both National Bellas Hess and Quill involved interstate shipment from products ordered from catalogs.
It is estimated that these two cases caused South Dakota to miss out on $48 million to $58 million annually. And so, like many states, South Dakota sought to test the issue again, claiming that the Internet had changed things, i.e., we had a new economic reality of “nexus” that went beyond physical presence. Based on this half century standard, Wayfair refused to collect sales tax imposed by a relatively new South Dakota sales tax law that sought to impose sales tax responsibilities on out-of-state sellers who sold more than $100,000 in goods and services into the state or carried out more than 200 sales transactions.
Litigation followed, led by South Dakota requesting a declaratory judgment that its new tax was valid. Wayfair raised the long time defense of lack of “nexus” via physical presence. South Dakota lost at the trial court and State Supreme Court and requested review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The states hit the jackpot. And it was the lucky day for the forty-one states, two Territories and the District of Columbia, all hungry for new taxes, who joined South Dakota to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to reject the test formulated in Quill. In 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office pegged the prospective increase to the states, if South Dakota won the Wayfair case, as being between $8 billion and $13 billion per year.
Read the full article here.