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Utah case at the crux of Supreme Court ruling

Published June 28, 2012 4:37 pm

Court • Roberts points to obscure, 16-year-old ruling that penalties and taxes are not the same.
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Washington • Chief Justice John Roberts based part of the Supreme Court's 5-4 majority opinion on health care on a Utah case justifying his point that the punishment for Americans not buying health insurance is actually a tax, and therefore constitutional.

Roberts four times cited the obscure 1996 Supreme Court decision, United States vs. the Reorganized CF&I Fabricators of Utah, which deals with the question of whether an IRS claim can be considered a tax under federal bankruptcy law.

"[I]f the concept of penalty means anything," Roberts cited the 1996 ruling as saying, "it means punishment for an unlawful act or omission."

A tax, Roberts said, is different, and he used the Utah case to illustrate that the high court has previously held that penalties and taxes are not synonymous.

"What that case does is help decide how you define what a tax is, and so Roberts was citing that case to help support the definition of what is and what isn't a tax," says Michael Teter, an associate professor of law at the University of Utah.

Teter says the Utah case was at the crux of the court's majority opinion and helped boost Roberts' argument. Roberts wrote that Congress doesn't have the power under the Constitution's Commerce Clause to force all Americans to purchase health care coverage, but that it does fall within the legislative branch's power to tax and spend.

The unanimous 1996 ruling cited by Roberts said that a claim by the IRS against the steel corporation for its lack of funds in a pension plan was not an "excise tax."

tburr@sltrib.com