Williams v. Vermont, 472 U.S. 14 (1985)

Author: Justice Brennan

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Williams v. Vermont, 472 U.S. 14 (1985)

JUSTICE BRENNAN, concurring.

I join the Court’s opinion for the reasons stated therein and in my concurring opinion in Zobel v. Williams, 457 U.S. 55, 65 (1982). General application of distinctions of the kind made by the Vermont statute would clearly, though indirectly, threaten the "federal interest in free interstate migration." Id. at 66. In addition, the statute makes distinctions among residents that are not "supported by a valid state interest independent of the discrimination itself." Id. at 70.

1. In the rare event that the use-tax credit is used because the out-of-state sales tax for some reason was paid, seen. 5, infra, the State that receives the tax will not be the State whose roads are used, but the State where the car was purchased. Because the statute is reciprocal, however, it is hardly irrational to assume that the reciprocal payments will even out. The exemptions, thus, are entirely consistent with the user-pays principle of the tax. And from the point of view of the purchaser, as with these appellants, it matters little to whom he is paying a tax. He is using the car primarily in only one State, and paying a use or sales tax in one State.

2. In the only nonsummary opinion issued in this case, however, the Vermont Superior Court found that the statute did not discriminate:

The state exacts a use tax upon the value of all cars used within the state, regardless of whether they were purchased by residents or nonresidents, and Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that they would have been treated any differently had they been Vermont residents when they purchased their cars.

App. 15 (emphasis in original).

3. When the Vermont Legislature meant to exempt an automobile under § 8911 because of where it was operated or who owned it, it said so. In particular, the State made only one specific allowance for certain residents who purchase and initially register their cars out-of-state. Thus, in § 8911(11) motor vehicles "owned or purchased in another state by a member of the armed forces on full time active duty" are exempted from the use tax. That section would be partially redundant if the Court’s interpretation of § 8911(9) were accurate. Other subsections of § 8911 also speak explicitly of cars classified by where they are operated or registered. Thus, the statute exempts cars "owned or registered" by any State, cars "owned and operated by the United States," cars "owned and registered" by religious or charitable groups, cars "owned and operated" by certain dealers, and certain cars "owned and operated by physically handicapped persons." §§ 8911(1), (2), (3), (4), and (12). Only § 8911(9), in contrast, speaks in terms of where a car is "acquired."

4. "States have large leeway in making classifications and drawing lines which in their judgment produce reasonable systems of taxation." Lehnhausen v. Lake Shore Auto Parts Co., 410 U.S. 356, 359 (1973). Were it otherwise, it would be an easy task to ferret out inconsistencies in taxation schemes. After all, even if Vermont’s statute were worded in terms of the State of first registration, rather than the State of residency, as the Court wishes, it would still be possible to imagine some hypothetical Vermont registrant who uses his car initially exclusively in some other State. He, too, is situated similarly to Mr. Williams, in that neither initially is using Vermont roads.

5. This is a noncase in another sense as well. Since all States apparently forgo payment of their sales tax by out-of-state purchasers of automobiles, see J. C. Penney Co. v. Hardesty, 164 W.Va. 525, 538-539, 264 S.E.2d 604, 613 (1980), § 8911(9) might well be entirely superfluous, as no out-of-state purchaser will ever be required to pay a sales tax which could be credited against Vermont’s use tax pursuant to § 8911(9). I doubt that a statute offering a tax credit that is never applied can violate equal protection.

6. Vermont automobile owners are required to register their cars in Vermont when they become residents of the State. Vt.Stat.Ann., Tit. 23, §§ 4(30), 301 (1978). In appellants’ case, liability for the tax arose six months after they accepted employment in the State, at which time they became Vermont residents. Vt.Stat.Ann., Tit. 32, § 8902(2) (1981). Mr. Williams accepted employment in Vermont on February 1, 1981, App. 5, and so was required to register his car before August 1 of that year. He did not attempt to register it, however, until his Illinois registration expired on September 30, 1981. Similarly, Ms. Levine accepted employment in Vermont in November, 1979, ibid., and was required to register her car in May, 1980. She did not attempt to do so until December, 1982, when her New York registration was about to expire.


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Chicago: Brennan, "Brennan, J., Concurring," Williams v. Vermont, 472 U.S. 14 (1985) in 472 U.S. 14 Original Sources, accessed June 4, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4TWQIK468MKCXJ7.

MLA: Brennan. "Brennan, J., Concurring." Williams v. Vermont, 472 U.S. 14 (1985), in 472 U.S. 14, Original Sources. 4 Jun. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4TWQIK468MKCXJ7.

Harvard: Brennan, 'Brennan, J., Concurring' in Williams v. Vermont, 472 U.S. 14 (1985). cited in 1985, 472 U.S. 14. Original Sources, retrieved 4 June 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4TWQIK468MKCXJ7.