As many litigators know, federal courts often take substantial time before they rule on motions or issue their opinions. Weeks, months, or sometimes even years may pass between an argument over an issue and a court’s disposition of that issue. Parties usually have little choice but to wait.
In the U.S. Tax Court, delays may present an especially acute problem. In Tax Court trials, no jury renders an immediate verdict. The fact finders are the Tax Court judges themselves. Thus, in complex cases, the judges hold off on a decision until they can review, for example, post-trial briefs from the parties. Delays inevitably occur between the close of trial and the Tax Court’s disposition of a case.
In a recent interview, Judge Albert Lauber noted that the Tax Court has internal procedures to expedite substantially delayed cases. Judge Lauber also observed that Congress could provide a potentially helpful resource for taxpayers. The Tax Court, created by statute, depends on Congress for its funding. Thus, Judge Lauber advised, if taxpayers face something like a 6-year delay in their cases, the “best thing” would be for the taxpayers to “contact their congressmen.” Then, Congress might “contact the Chief Judge” to “express unhappiness” over the court’s delay in a matter. This approach, Judge Lauber observed, “tends to get results.” The Tax Court would “never want Congress to be unhappy.” See Substantial Authorities: The Tax Podcast with Matt Frank, 51:10 – 52:12.
This practice apparently reflects a departure from that adopted by the Article III federal courts. The chief judges of the federal district or federal appellate courts probably do not entertain direct communications from legislators over pending matters. Instead, they directly entertain comments from Congress only through publicly filed amicus briefs.
The Tax Court’s departure from standard judicial practices might be justified for two reasons. First, Tax Court cases do not present a dispute between private parties. Rather, disputes arise between a private taxpayer and the federal government. Thus, if a taxpayer contacts his congresswoman and she pressures the court on the taxpayer’s behalf, no private person suffers due process violations. Only the government would potentially suffer from the ex parte contacts. Under this view, congressional meddling in Tax Court cases should not raise serious concerns.
Alternatively, congressional communications could be justified because of the Tax Court’s strange constitutional status. Under Freytag v. Commissioner, the Tax Court exercises “judicial power.” Yet the Tax Court apparently differs from the other judicial bodies that exercise that power. The Tax Court operates as an “Article I court,” with judges who lack life tenure. Thus, the argument might go, practices that apply to congressional communications in Article III courts need not apply to the Tax Court. The Tax Court might instead look to federal agencies’ practices. Congressmen often contact federal agencies when their constituents face red tape. And maybe congressional contacts with the Tax Court should be viewed the same way. Lobbying the Tax Court through one’s representative could be viewed as a legitimate way for the taxpayer to petition the government for the redress of her grievances.
Nonetheless, those arguments have flaws. Even if no private parties suffer direct harm when a legislator contacts the Chief Judge on a constituent’s behalf, they can still cry foul. Why, for example, should one delayed case get preferential treatment over another delayed case, simply because the taxpayer in the first case enjoys stronger political connections? Additionally, when a legislator contacts the Chief Judge about a case, questions may be fairly raised about whether those communications relate solely to the timing of a decision. Ex parte contacts raise the potential that the legislator may try to influence a case’s outcome. And once again, taxpayers may wonder whether those with political connections will receive more favorable dispositions than those who lack them.
These concerns about appearances also relate to the second potential justification for the Tax Court’s practices. Even if the Tax Court formally qualifies as an Article I court (whatever that means), the Tax Court presents itself as a judicial forum for dispute resolution. It issues carefully reasoned opinions, follows its own precedents, treats appellate court decisions as binding, and so on. Though Tax Court judges will inevitably view some legal issues through a specialized lens, those judges convey to the public that they will decide cases with the same professionalism and commitment to the rule of law that their life-tenured counterparts do. Thus, if due process and fairness concerns prohibit congressional contacts in the Article III context, those concerns should similarly prohibit congressional contacts in the Tax Court context.
The Tax Court’s Chief Judge should consider whether to end any congressional influence over the disposition of cases. Additionally, Congress should consider how to enhance the Tax Court’s independence. Based on Judge Lauber’s remarks, the Chief Judge entertains congressional communications because of the power that the legislature wields over the Tax Court. Ceding some of that power, and enhancing the Tax Court’s independence, would likely serve the tax system.
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