High court to review curb on mail order sales taxes Justices sidestep abortion clinic case

October 08, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The SunWashington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON — The Sun reported on Oct. 8 that Maryland did not now have a state law that would permit it to tax sales of goods to Marylanders by mail-order companies, if the Supreme Court in a pending case rules that states may impose such taxes. The state does have a law on taxation of "out-of-state vendors" selling in the state, although there is a dispute over how far it reaches. Some mail-order companies argue that it applies only to vendors with facilities or personnel in Maryland. The state comptroller's office argues that the law, not yet tested in court, is broad enough to reach all mail-order companies selling in Maryland.

The Sun regrets any misimpression the article may have created.

WASHINGTON -- Americans who do some of their shopping by mail or long-distance telephone -- a huge bloc of consumers numbering about 98 million -- have a $2 billion stake in a case the Supreme Court agreed to hear yesterday.

In a brief order, the court indicated that it will reconsider a 24-year-old decision insulating catalog and telemarketing sales from sales tax collections on out-of-state sales, a decision that states say is costing them more than $2.2 billion a year in lost revenues.


About 54 percent of American consumers buy goods from catalogs or through telemarketing and other long-distance selling methods.

They spend more than $185 billion a year on those purchases, about 15 percent of all sales nationwide.

About 35 states have laws that will permit collection of the taxes if the Supreme Court changes its mind.

States without such laws, including Maryland, might be expected to impose similar taxes.

The justices stepped into the tax fight -- one they have tried to stay out of in recent years -- on the opening day of their new term. The North Dakota Supreme Court had all but dared the court to get involved when it declared in May that the justices would no longer follow their 1967 ruling.

But, in one of their other major actions on the opening day of the term, the justices avoided getting more deeply involved in the evenmore heated controversy over blockades of abortion clinics.

By bypassing a new case from Atlanta, the court appeared to be leaving state judges with broad power to protect pregnant women who try to get into or out of clinics that are blockaded by anti-abortion groups such as Operation Rescue.

In the Atlanta case, a state judge barred demonstrators from entering a 5-foot "bubble zone" surrounding a person entering or leaving a clinic unless they had that person's permission.

Within the bubble zone, abortion foes were prohibited from engaging in sidewalk "counseling" or engaging in oral or placard protests against abortion.

The state judge in Georgia also imposed a 50-foot protective "free zone" around clinics within which no more than 20 demonstrators are allowed.

The Georgia Supreme Court upheld those restrictions against Operation Rescue and its followers, and the constitutional challenge was then taken to the Supreme Court. The justices turned it aside without comment in the case of Hirsh vs. Atlanta (No. 90-1893).

The power of state judges to deal with blockades of abortion clinic could become more significant if the Supreme Court, in another case it will review this month, rules that federal civil rights law does not protect pregnant women seeking access to clinics.

In that case, Operation Rescue, supported by the Bush administration, wants the court to rule that the 1871 Ku Klux Klan act does not give pregnant women a right to federal protection against clinic blockades. The court will hold a hearing on that case Oct. 16.

The Bush administration also has supported Operation Rescue in a challenge to restrictions on blockades this year at abortion clinics in Wichita, Kan. The Wichita case is working its way up through lower courts.

As the justices began their new term yesterday, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist read a warm letter of appreciation he and his colleagues sent last month to newly retired Justice Thurgood Marshall.

In the first round of formal orders issued by the court on cases that reached it over the summer recess, the justices added 12 new cases to their docket for decision, including the North Dakota tax case and another major tax case of interest to consumers.

The other tax case -- Nordlingervs. Hahn (No. 90-1912) -- tests the constitutionality of a part of California's tax-limiting Proposition 13. The new case tests whether states may impose higher taxes on homes that have been bought recently than on those long owned by the same person. That part of Proposition 13 is called, paradoxically, the "welcome stranger" provision.

Other Supreme Court actions


* Issue: the constitutionality of forcing an accused person who is claiming an insanity defense to criminal charges to take behavior-changing drugs that cause him to appear fully sane during the trial.

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