United States v. Williams, 514 U.S. 527, 9 (1995)

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Cite as: 514 U. S. 527 (1995)

Opinion of the Court

Further, even if, as the Government contends, only "taxpayers" could seek administrative relief under 6511, the Government's claim that Williams is not at this point a "taxpayer" is unpersuasive. Section 7701(a)(14), defining "taxpayer," informs us that "[w]hen used in [the Internal Revenue Code], where not otherwise distinctly expressed or manifestly incompatible with the intent thereof, . . . [t]he term 'taxpayer' means any person subject to any internal revenue tax." 8 That definition does not exclude Williams. The Government reads the definition as if it said "any person who is assessed any internal revenue tax," but these are not Congress' words. The general phrase "subject to" is broader than the specific phrase "assessed" and, in the tax collection context before us, we think it is broad enough to include Williams. In placing a lien on her home and then accepting her tax payment under protest, the Government surely subjected Williams to a tax, even though she was not the assessed party.

In support of its reading of "taxpayer," the Government cites our observation in Colorado Nat. Bank of Denver v. Bedford, 310 U. S. 41, 52 (1940), that "[t]he taxpayer is the person ultimately liable for the tax itself." The Government takes this language out of context. We were not interpreting the term "taxpayer" in the Internal Revenue Code, but deciding whether a state tax scheme was consistent with federal law. In particular, we were determining whether Colorado had imposed its service tax on a bank's customers (which was consistent with federal law) or on the bank itself (which was not). Though the bank collected and paid the tax, its incidence fell on the customers. Favoring substance over form, we said: "The person liable for the tax [the bank], primarily, cannot always be said to be the real taxpayer.

8 The Treasury's regulation, 26 CFR 301.7701-16 (1994), adds nothing to the statute; in particular, the regulation does not ascribe any special or limiting meaning to the statute's "subject to" terminology.


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