State Rep. Phil Hart’s anti-tax battle hit the big time Monday, at least in Idaho.
The visiting Idaho Supreme Court considered oral arguments in Hart’s continuing fight against income taxes, and the justices appeared to have little patience for the Athol lawmaker’s claims that the state constitution shields him from tax collectors.
At issue is $53,000 in unpaid state taxes, penalties and interest that the Idaho State Tax Commission ruled Hart owes. In a separate action, Hart faces a federal trial next year in which the government is seeking to foreclose on his log home near Athol to recoup about $550,000 for several years of unpaid federal taxes and the corresponding penalties.
Hart’s legal defense in both courts centers on a provision of Idaho’s state constitution that bars senators or state representatives from any civil process 10 days before and during the legislative session. Even though the law was intended to prevent partisans from using legal means to stifle debate or votes, Hart said it applies to him on his longstanding tax issues.
“It’s not about me,” Hart said after the hearing. “It’s really about the Legislature and whether it’s going to be free to do its work or … be subject to distractions when they are trying to do the work of the people.”
Hart is appealing a ruling last year by District Court Judge John Mitchell, who sided with the state’s position that Hart owes the back taxes and penalties. While the justices heard argument Monday on the appeal of Mitchell’s ruling, they gave no indication when they would make their final ruling.
Hart “raises a myriad of issues,” Deputy Attorney General Bill von Tagen said. “But none get to the core rules about appealing a tax issue.”
In the state case, Hart was afforded 91 days to appeal the Idaho board of Tax Appeals’ final ruling on the unpaid taxes. That clock ran out on Jan. 4, 2010. Hart started that legislative session on Jan. 14 and didn’t try to file the appeal until three months later as the session was coming to an end.
What’s more, he didn’t initially pay the required 20 percent of the owed taxes until two weeks after he filed, which von Tagen argued disqualified him from any further appeal considerations.
“The only relevant facts are that the appeal time ran out on Jan. 4,” von Tagen told the justices. “What happened in March or April (when Hart finally filed an appeal) is irrelevant. He’s wrong in saying that (civil immunity) absolves him of the deadlines.”
What’s more, von Tagen argued, is that Hart’s argument that he should be immune from any civil process fails because Hart is not “being subjected to any process. He is availing himself to it” by filing the appeal.
Justice Joel Horton questioned Hart’s attorney, Starr Kelso, about that very point. “There is no threat for contempt for failure to appeal,” Horton said.
Kelso responded: “But there is a threat to lose property. In order for Representative Hart to protect himself, he would have had to have taken time away from the Legislature and have taken an affirmative act.”
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