Tax Analysts Blog

Is the Maryland Tax Court Hiding Its Opinions?

Posted on Oct 8, 2014

States have increasingly turned to independent tax tribunals as a means of providing taxpayers with a dedicated forum to adjudicate tax appeals before entering the court system. Independent tax tribunals have been lauded because they are separate from the state tax authority and the judges have tax expertise. Opinions from tax tribunals also tend to be more readily available than opinions from a forum within the state tax authority, which improves transparency.

In total, 34 states have some form of tax tribunal. While 28 of those tribunals exist within the state’s executive branch, the remaining six are in the state’s judicial branch. Some state tax courts are relatively old, but many are quite young. Seven tribunals were established in the last two years.

The Maryland Tax Court is among the oldest independent state tax courts in the country. The court was established in 1878. While it devolved to the State Tax Commission in 1914, it reverted to the tax court in 1959. Since that time, the tax court has been an administrative agency within Maryland’s executive branch, tasked with the quasi-judicial function of resolving tax disputes.

Despite the potential benefits of having an independent tax tribunal, the Maryland Tax Court is providing a disservice to taxpayers because of the manner in which it retains – or doesn’t retain – its records.

Here’s the problem: The Maryland Tax Court publishes a small fraction of its decisions online. It published a single decision in 2013 and has yet to publish a decision in 2014. The court has, of course, issued far more decisions; it simply chooses not to make them publicly available. One would presume, then, that the court retains all decisions and that if a taxpayer or practitioner wanted to review those decisions, a copy could be requested. But it is not that simple in Maryland.

According to the court’s most recent retention schedule, decisions are to be permanently retained and periodically transferred to the Maryland State Archives. In reality, however, the tax court retains them for three years, but then the decisions are “shredded.” They are not sent to the archives.

While an official at the Maryland Comptroller’s Office indicated at a recent conference that the comptroller has copies of all tax court decisions, there is no way to obtain copies of them from the comptroller. A FAQ on the comptroller’s website suggests tax court opinions can be reviewed by visiting the Maryland Tax Court website – the few made available.

One of the reasons an independent tax tribunal is important from a transparency standpoint is that decisions by a judicial branch tax court or an independent tax tribunal are not confidential and therefore are, like any other court opinion, readily published. By not publishing its opinions, the Maryland Tax Court is hiding a wealth of information from taxpayers about how the state’s tax system will be administered.

Read Comments (2)

bob kammanOct 8, 2014

I really like the idea of a government bureau where the employees who call
themselves judges need not pay attention to precedent. This obviously means
that a taxpayer who received an unfavorable decision three years ago can try
again, and no one will be the wiser. What a refreshing new approach to
justice!

Publius NovusOct 15, 2014

The Maryland Tax Court is required by statute to dispose of each case by means
of a "written order." The vast majority of the cases are disposed of by an
on-the-record" statement of reasons by the trial judge, followed a few days
later by a simple written judgment order reciting that the decision is based on
the explanation that occurred at the conclusion of the hearing, with one, two,
or three decretal paragraphs that satisfies the requirements of a "written
order." None of these routine "written order[s]" contains any facts or legal
arguments that could serve as precedent. In short, there is nothing here.

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