April 14, 2011

IS THE TAX CODE VOID FOR VAGUENESS? Courts strike down laws on vagueness grounds when an intelligent person must necessarily be uncertain of their meaning. Vagueness is unfair both because it does not allow honest people to conform their conduct to the law, and because it vests excessive discretion in the law’s administrators. With that in mind, consider this:

While researching today’s column, I came across a 2010 report (PDF) from the National Taxpayers Union that summarizes various experiments showing that professional tax preparers disagree about the proper way to file returns for hypothetical families. Worse, the people conducting the experiments—including the Government Accountability Office, which consulted with experts at the Joint Committee on Taxation—could not definitively say who was right and who was wrong.

And I love this bit: “All 46 tested tax professionals got a different answer, and none got it right. The professional who directed the test admitted ‘that his computation is not the only possible correct answer’ since the tax law is so murky.”

Yet you can be jailed, or fined, or otherwise punished if you get an answer that is deemed “wrong.” This sounds like the very definition of void for vagueness. But would any court have the backbone to so hold?

What’s funny is that it’s the critics of this system who are often characterized as crackpots.

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