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State Tax Notes

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St. Tax Notes



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It’s no secret that the pace of lawmaking in the United States has accelerated dramatically in recent decades. So much so that one may be forgiven for thinking that the best law reform would be a moratorium on further law reform – - to give citizens, their legal representatives, and government officials the opportunity to catch up with the laws we already have made.

Legislatures, agencies, and courts all have made their contributions to the torrent of lawmaking. The phenomenon has been attributed to various causes, including growing populations, greater population densities as a result of urbanization, rapid technological changes, proliferating economic and social forms, and electorates or interest groups demanding more activism from their governments.

For whatever reason, American legislatures are enacting more laws than a generation ago, and often do so in haste and with insufficient care. One result is that new statutes sometimes conflict with previously enacted statutes. That is as true of tax as other statutes and of state and local statutes as federal statutes.

How should courts decide cases when two or more statutes bear on the matter and those statutes conflict? One long-standing response to that situation is the canon of construction that in cases of conflict, specific statutes control over general statutes.

This installment of Interpretation Matters examines the application of that canon to state and local tax controversies. The first part describes the canon. The second part explores strategies by which assertion of the canon may be opposed. The third part gives examples of the use of the “specific controls over general” canon in state-local tax cases, both situations in which the canon was embraced and situations in which it was forced to yield to other rules of interpretation.


© 2010 Steve R. Johnson


First published in State Tax Notes.