Notes on Seattle income tax court hearing

By JASON MERCIER  | 
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Nov 17, 2017

I had the opportunity to attend today's three hour-long King County Superior Court hearing on Seattle's income tax. Judge Ruhl says he plans to issue his ruling early next week before Thanksgiving. Here are my notes from the hearing as the arguments unfolded: 

  • Counsel table looks like a Thanksgiving meal - 13 lawyers strong ready to make their best case to Judge Ruhl re Seattle income tax. Judge mentions there are 1,210 pages of pleadings in this case.
     
  • Seattle tells Judge it is not imposing "net" income tax and either way that income is not property saying Supreme Court made flawed rulings in the past. Says "there is admittedly a long line of cases" that hold income is property. But says based on "faulty reasoning." Asks Judge to uphold the income tax because even if Supreme Court strikes it taxpayers can get refunds. Says this income tax is not a property tax. It's a transaction tax for the benefit of living in Seattle.
     
  • Economic Opportunity Institute (EOI) tells court to declare state law banning a local income tax unconstitutional. Says they want local income taxes across the state.
     
  • While EOI asks Judge to declare state income tax ban law unconstitutional, one attorney is noticeably absent from Court room - the State Attorney General.
     
  • Former Supreme Court Justice Talmadge responding to EOI's claim highlights that not even Seattle is making argument law banning local income taxes is invalid.
     
  • Attorney Scott Edwards addresses excise versus income tax debate. Pans Seattle's argument that income tax is an excise tax for the privilege of living in Seattle.
     
  • Former Attorney General Rob McKenna says local income tax illegal; no need to address constitutional issues; Court is bound by Supreme Court precedent; and prior rulings declaring income is property are sound. Supreme Court has repeatedly refused request to overturn prior income tax rulings. Also notes the voters have refused to overturn rulings by rejecting 6 income tax constitutional amendments.
     
  • Former Chief Justice Gerry Alexander gives Rob McKenna the thumbs up after his arguments to the Judge.
     
  • Rental Housing Association attorney addressing Seattle's excise tax for privilege of living in Seattle argument: "Residency is a right not a privilege."
     
  • Seattle argues this tax is on privilege of the benefits of living in Seattle. It is voluntary to live in Seattle. Says if you don't want to pay the tax move to Bellevue (I need to check if @BellevueChamber is paying Seattle's attorneys).
     
  • Seattle says the state's prior poll tax is evidence it has the authority to impose an income tax.
     
  • Rob McKenna says Seattle makes no attempt to claim the income tax complies with existing Supreme Court rulings - because they cannot.

Based on today's oral arguments and the prior briefs, I feel confident Judge Ruhl will find, as every other Washington judge has beforehand, that income is property, a graduated income tax is unconstitutional and local governments have no authority to impose an income tax. 

Additional Information 
Local income taxes are illegal in Washington State 
Legal Brief: Seattle income tax is "subterfuge"
Washington officials say no state income tax is competitive advantage
Lawmakers ask Attorney General to defend local income tax ban
Timeless advice from WA Supreme Court on income taxes