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State Tax Notes

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St. Tax Notes



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The human spirit can be deeply stirred by art for its own sake, but there is special magic when the esthetic combines with the practical. It was in this sense that Charles W. Eliot, for decades president of Harvard University, once declared that he found great beauty in the shape of the handle of an American ax. In the same fashion, beauty resides in well-made statutory interpretation arguments.

Over the millennia, scores of principles of construction have evolved, all of them useful in the right contexts. Usually, more than one principle can plausibly be maintained to apply to the given case, and often those multiple guides appear to point in different directions. Accordingly, almost every lawyer can make a journeyman-level statutory interpretation argument in a case. Fewer, however, are the advocates who can make a master-level argument, one in which multiple themes are combined to produce an explanation of the statute both pleasing to the artistic impulse and useful to the resolution of the controversy before the court.

A recent Florida tax case — Alachua County v. Expedia — illustrates the interplay of multiple constructional themes and the beauty that their nuanced harmonization can produce. I do not intend to engage all of the dimensions of Expedia. Instead, I will emphasize the interplay of several principles in the case, particularly how some canons were used to initially create a tie between the revenue authorities and the taxpayers and then how other canons were advanced — sometimes persuasively, sometimes not — to break that tie.

The first section below describes the controversy in Expedia. The second section explores how the “ordinary understanding” canon was used by the majority and the dissent, leaving the parties in essential equipoise at that level. The third section examines how the majority used the pro-taxpayer canon to break that equipoise in favor of the taxpayer. It also compares Expedia to a federal case in which the court chose not to follow the same path. The fourth section considers how the dissent advanced a different principle — the “substance over form” rule — to attempt to resolve the equipoise in favor of the government units.


© 2013 Steve R. Johnson


First published in State Tax Notes.

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