Last week, the Supreme Court issued cert in the case of South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc.Â The question before the Court is whether it should abrogate its holding in Quill Corp. v. North Dakota which re-affirmed the Court’s holding in Nat’l Bellas Hess, Inc. v. Dep’t of Rev. of Ill. that the dormant commerce clause prohibits a state from requiring retailers to collect sales taxes on sales into a state unless the retailer is “physically present” there. In Quill, the Court held that “Congress is now free to decide whether, when, and to what extent the States may burden interstate mail-order concerns with a duty to collect use taxes.”
Given the massive shift to online purchasing since Quill, it would seem to be sensible to all interstate sales even if the sellers lack a physical presence in the taxing state. Whether this is sufficient to change the Constitutional doctrine set forth in Nat’l Bellas Hess and Quill is a question that I won’t opine on here. However, there would seem to be no question that, without a national framework, there will be practical problems in imposing and collecting sales taxes on interstate sales.
There are about 10,000 different jurisdictions that impose sales taxes.Â Thus, sellers are likely to face problems in effecting compliance. As noted by Avalare:
ZIP codes are commonly believed to be the basis of a sales tax jurisdictional boundaries and rates. . . .Sales tax is imposed by local and regional governments and have no direct correlation between ZIP code boundaries and tax jurisdictions.
However, without a national framework, taxing authorities will have to deal with significant enforcement problems:
We can assume that large retailers will do their best to honestly comply with sales taxes imposed by any of those 10,000 jurisdictions. But what about smaller retailers?Â Take a look at this story as to how easily one one can become a “drop-ship” entrepreneur.Â Absent some uniform system of compliance enforcement, smaller retailers will simply ignore the collection of sales taxes on their sales. (While there are provisions in most sales tax statutes that impose liability for sales taxes on so-called “responsible persons,” the practical ability to collect from responsible persons who are outside of the taxing authorities’ actual location is zero.)
There is no uniformity among sales tax statutes as to what items are taxable and what items are exempt. To cite a fairly trivial example, some states exempt their own state flags, but not the flags from other states.Â More significantly, grocery items are sometimes taxed and sometimes exempt.Â (At one time, bibles and other religious articles were often exempt, but these exemptions have been successfully challenged on First Amendment grounds.)
The point is that, even if the Supreme Court overturns existing precedent, there will have to be Congressional legislation to relieve sellers from compliance burdens and to give state and local jurisdictions the tools to enforce their tax impositions.