By Tim Young
The Supreme Court heard arguments today in the case of Armour v. City of Indianapolis, which dealt with a tax assessment’s potential violation of the Equal Protection Clause.
The State of Indiana allows municipalities to levy special assessments to their property owners. In 2004, the city of Indianapolis invoked the Barrett Law in order to connect properties in the Northern Estates Neighborhood with the City’s sewer system. Each property owner subject to this project was levied a $9,278 special assessment. The City gave the property owners an option to pay this assessment entirely upfront of in installments over 10, 20 and 30 year periods.
One year later, the City-County council of Indianapolis-Marion County eliminated the Barrett Law and replaced it with the Septic Tank elimination Program (“STEP”). Under the STEP program, the county adopted Resolution 101, which forgave the outstanding assessment balances on all Barrett law projects still owed as of November 1, 2005. Property owners who paid in full were not given any of their money back.
The property owners who paid in full (“Armour”) asked for a refund of their money so that what they paid in assessments would equal that of those who were forgiven their owed amount. The county refused to do so.
Lawyers for Armour contend that the resolution forgiving the debt owed and not returning any of their money created “unfair and inequitable treatment,” to a specific group of property owners. When the law was written, they said, it created an equal protection issue for what were essentially equal property owners. Some of their clients paid more than 30 times the amount for the same sewage system that their neighbors received.
The City of Indianapolis’ attorney argued that there were no separate classes of people, and that returning the paid in full money to those who did so would create unnecessary administration burdens on the city, as well as a need to potentially repay more fees, such as those imposed by parking tickets.
The conservative-leaning Justices seemed to be aligned for this case, led by Chief Justice Roberts who noted that the change in policy here meant a change in equal to unequal treatment. Justice Kennedy, in agreement with his colleague, stated that if they found in favor of the City of Indianapolis that the Supreme Court would be adopting the principle of “Don’t Trust the Government.”
Justice Kagan, differing from her colleagues, stated that in this instance, it’s important to realize that all laws create different classes of people.