In a widely anticipated decision in the state tax world, the United States Supreme Court, in South Dakota v. Wayfair (June 21, 2018), has struck down the sales tax physical presence standard set forth in Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, 504 U.S. 298 (1992), and National Bellas Hess, Inc. v. Department of Rev. of Ill., 386 U.S. 758 (1967). Under Quill, an out-of-state seller’s liability to collect and remit sales tax to the consumer’s state depended on whether the seller had a physical presence in the state. After Wayfair, there is no longer a physical presence standard.
In Wayfair, the underlying issue was a statute passed by South Dakota which required sellers that deliver more than $100,000 worth of goods or services into the state on an annual basis, or engage in 200 or more separate transactions for the delivery of goods and services into the state on an annual basis, to collect and remit sales tax. Top online retailers filed an action challenging the statute.
The Court, in a majority opinion authored by Justice Kennedy (and joined by Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, Alito and Gorsuch), found that the physical presence rule is unsound and incorrect. First, the Court found that the physical presence rule is not a necessary interpretation of the requirement that a state tax must be “applied to an activity with a substantial nexus with the taxing State.” Complete Auto Transit, Inc. v. Brady, 430 U.S. 274, 279 (1977). Second, it found that Quill creates rather than resolves market distortions. Finally, the Court concluded that Quill imposes the sort of arbitrary, formalistic distinction that the Court’s modern Commerce Clause precedents disavow.
In the opinion, the Court noted that when the day-to-day functions of marketing and distribution in the modern economy are considered, it becomes evident that Quill’s physical presence rule is artificial, not just “at its edges,” Quill, 504 U.S. at 315, but in its entirety. Modern e-commerce, the Court reasoned, does not align analytically with a test that relies on the sort of physical presence defined in Quill. The Court concluded that it should not maintain a rule that ignores substantial virtual connections to the state.
On the policy front, the Court noted that the physical presence rule was an extraordinary imposition of the judiciary on the states’ authority to collect taxes and perform public functions. Bluntly, the Court stated that helping customers evade a lawful tax unfairly shifts the tax burden to customers who purchase items from an in-state seller. By giving online retailers an arbitrary advantage over their competitors who collect sales taxes, the Court reasoned, the physical presence rule has limited the states’ ability to seek long-term prosperity and has prevented market participants from competing on an even playing field. The majority rejected arguments that stare decisis should preclude the Court from overruling National Bellas Hess and Quill, reasoning that adherence to precedent should not support the Court’s prohibition of a valid exercise of the states’ sovereign power; in fact, the Court should be vigilant in correcting such an error.
Justice Roberts was blunt in his dissent, arguing that stare decisis should apply due to market participants making decisions on the decades-old physical presence test. Justice Roberts also warned that the majority decision could detract from e-commerce’s “significant and vibrant part of our national economy.” He reasoned that the Court should not act on this important question of current economic policy, solely to expiate a mistake it made over 50 years ago.
Many questions now exist going forward. How far can states now go under the first prong of Complete Auto, which requires a substantial nexus with the state before the state may impose a tax? Will states attempt any “look back” assessments? What dollar threshold, or number of transactions, will trigger nexus under Complete Auto? Will states offer vendor allowances/discounts for online retailers’ collection of tax?
The McNees State and Local Tax Team will continue to monitor developments and will keep you updated.