Harper v. Virginia Dept. of Taxation, 509 U.S. 86, 38 (1993)

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certiorari to the supreme court of virginia

No. 91-794. Argued December 2, 1992—Decided June 18, 1993

In Davis v. Michigan Dept. of Treasury, 489 U. S. 803, this Court invalidated Michigan's practice of taxing retirement benefits paid by the Federal Government while exempting retirement benefits paid by the State or its political subdivisions. Because Michigan conceded that a refund to federal retirees was the appropriate remedy, the Court remanded for entry of judgment against the State. Virginia subsequently amended a similar statute that taxed federal retirees while exempting state and local retirees. Petitioners, federal civil service and military retirees, sought a refund of taxes assessed by Virginia before the revision of this statute. Applying the factors set forth in Chevron Oil Co. v. Huson, 404 U. S. 97, 106-107, a state trial court denied relief to petitioners as to all taxable events occurring before Davis was decided. In affirming, the Virginia Supreme Court concluded that Davis should not be applied retroactively under Chevron Oil and American Trucking Assns., Inc. v. Smith, 496 U. S. 167 (plurality opinion). It also held, as matters of state law, that the assessments were neither erroneous nor improper and that a decision declaring a tax scheme unconstitutional has solely prospective effect. In James B. Beam Distilling Co. v. Georgia, 501 U. S. 529, however, six Members of this Court required the retroactive application of Bacchus Imports, Ltd. v. Dias, 468 U. S. 263—which prohibited States from imposing higher excise taxes on imported alcoholic beverages than on locally produced beverages—to claims arising from facts predating that decision. Those Justices disagreed with the Georgia Supreme Court's use of Chevron Oil's retroactivity analysis. After this Court ordered reevaluation of petitioners' suit in light of Beam, the Virginia Supreme Court reaffirmed its decision in all respects. It held that Beam did not foreclose the use of Chevron Oil's analysis because Davis did not decide whether its rule applied retroactively.

Held: 1. When this Court applies a rule of federal law to the parties before it, that rule is the controlling interpretation of federal law and must be given full retroactive effect in all cases still open on direct review and as to all events, regardless of whether such events predate or postdate the announcement of the rule. Pp. 94-99.

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