Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 1998


Justice Harry Blackmun, Tax jurisprudence, United States v. Carlton, G.M. Leasing Corp. v. United States, Capital expenditures, Commissioner v. Tufts


Judges | Taxation-Federal | Tax Law


During his tenure on the Supreme Court, Justice Blackmun was widely regarded as the Court's authority on tax matters. Justice Blackmun viewed tax law not merely as a technical specialty, but as a microcosm of the legal system. His numerous tax opinions involve a wide range of issues of constitutional law, criminal law, administrative procedure, court procedure, and statutory interpretation. This Article begins by discussing two of Justice Blackmun's tax opinions involving constitutional issues. Justice Blackmun refused to create special constitutional rules for tax cases. Instead, he applied generally applicable principles, but with great sensitivity to how those principles would work in the tax context. The Article next examines Justice Blackmun's opinions in several tax cases involving statutory interpretation. Justice Blackmun's approach can best be described as relying on practical reasoning. He analyzed these cases in light of the underlying structure and logic of the income tax system, and his analyses are remarkably consistent with the economic concept of income elaborated by tax scholars. But Justice Blackmun also carefully evaluated and balanced a range of other—and often conflicting—factors, including the precise statutory language, context, legislative history, statutory purposes in addition to reflecting economic income, post-enactment developments, and the practical consequences of adopting alternative interpretations. His opinions typically weave together multiple strands of argument in a way that deals fairly with both sides of the issue. The Article argues that the Court is institutionally capable of carrying out this kind of analysis, and that this approach is essential if the Court is to fulfill its proper role in the administration of the tax system.

Publication Citation

Published in: Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 1 (Fall 1998).