The U.S. Supreme Court appears primed to set a high bar for when Congress wants to set mandatory deadlines for challenging agency action.
The justices Wednesday heard the latest in a long line of cases in which the court is trying to distinguish truly “jurisdictional” rules, which deprive agencies from considering claims, from the flexible “claims processing rules,” which can take into account principles of fairness. Similar cases involving other contexts federal agencies regulate in are likely to come before the justices in the future.
Here, the justices are considering a rule that gives taxpayers an opportunity to contest collection without having to first pay the disputed tax.
Such cases requires the court to look closely at statutory text, Chief Justice John Roberts said.
A general rule, however, is that the court doesn’t typically consider a deadline to be jurisdictional unless Congress clearly says so.
Most justices seemed to suggest during arguments Wednesday that Congress hadn’t met that bar here.
Where there are multiple reasonable interpretations of Congressional intent, “doesn’t that end the case?” Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked.
Roberts, however, said that would be “asking an awful lot of Congress.”
Clear Statement Rule
“That’s the point,” said Latham’s Melissa Arbus Sherry, who argued the case for the taxpayer.
The “clear statement rule” set up by this court assumes that Congress doesn’t generally intend deadlines to create harsh jurisdictional rules that don’t allow agencies to even consider fairness concerns, Sherry said.
“It’s something you want Congress to focus on and affirmatively decide,” Sherry said.
But Justice Department lawyer Jonathan Bond said the point of the rule was “to capture Congress’ intent.”
It isn’t to impose a “clearest possible statement rule” or impose “drafting rules” for Congress, Bond said.
Here, Congress specifically linked jurisdiction to the deadline, Roberts said.
The statute at issue here says a taxpayer “may, within 30 days of a determination under this section, petition the Tax Court for review of such determination (and the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction with respect to such matter).”
That’s “significant evidence” of what Congress intended, Roberts said.
But several justices wondered if the clear statement rule could actually get at congressional intent when trying to sort out jurisdiction and claims processing rules.
“My gut is that Congress has never read any of our cases in this area,” said Justice Elena Kagan.
It’s “pretty artificial” to think Congress linked the word “jurisdiction” to the 30-day deadline here as some sort of signal to the court, Justice Samuel Alito said.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked what’s the court to do if the government’s argument that the statute is clear is a good one, but “not a slam dunk.”
Once the statute invokes the term “jurisdiction,” that’s enough to get over the clear statement hurdle, Bond said. After that, it is just about figuring out the best possible interpretation, he said.
Infused With Equity
But Sherry said the court should look to the purpose of the statute.
The statute here provides for a “collection due process” review at which a taxpayer can challenge a collection without having to first pay the disputed tax, as is generally required.
That process is part of a “taxpayer bill or rights,” Sherry said, and is “infused with equity at every turn.”
“At the very least,” where the language is “far from clear,” the court shouldn’t impose such a harsh consequence, Sherry said.
North Dakota law firm Boechler PC brought its case to the Supreme Court after lower courts found that the U.S. Tax Court couldn’t hear the firm’s challenge to an IRS property seizure decision because the firm missed tax code Section 6330(d)(1)’s 30-day filing deadline.
Bond warned the justices of potential spillover effects if they rule that the 30-day deadline isn’t jurisdictional and can be tolled for equitable reasons.
He pointed to a separate deadline to challenge an IRS tax bill under tax code Section 6213(a), saying it makes up 95% of the Tax Court’s docket. A future ruling deeming that deadline subject to equitable tolling would “end up harming taxpayers” by preventing them from suing for tax refunds, Bond argued.
Justice Stephen Breyer suggested, however, that the court didn’t ever need to deem that separate deadline subject to equitable tolling. “Equitable means equitable, so if it’s going to hurt everybody, don’t do it,” he said.
Bond later said, in response to a question from Kavanaugh, that the government has a “good argument” that Section 6213(a) is jurisdictional even if the justices rule against the government in the present case.
The case is Boechler, P.C. v. IRS, U.S., No. 20-1472.