472 U.S. 612 (1985), 84-231, Hooper v. Bernalillo County Assessor

Docket Nº:No. 84-231
Citation:472 U.S. 612, 105 S.Ct. 2862, 86 L.Ed.2d 487, 53 U.S.L.W. 4827
Party Name:Hooper v. Bernalillo County Assessor
Case Date:June 24, 1985
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 612

472 U.S. 612 (1985)

105 S.Ct. 2862, 86 L.Ed.2d 487, 53 U.S.L.W. 4827



Bernalillo County Assessor

No. 84-231

United States Supreme Court

June 24, 1985

Argued February 20, 1985



A New Mexico statute exempts from the State's property tax $2,000 of the taxable [105 S.Ct. 2863] value of property of honorably discharged veterans who served on active duty during the Vietnam War for at least 90 continuous days, but limits the exemption to veterans who were New Mexico residents before May 8, 1976. Appellants, an otherwise qualified Vietnam veteran and his wife, established residence in New Mexico in 1981 and applied for the tax exemption for the 1983 tax year with respect to their jointly held real property in Bernalillo County. Appellee County Assessor denied the claim because of the residence requirement, and the County Valuation Board upheld the denial, rejecting appellants' contention that the residence requirement violated their Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection of the law. The New Mexico Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The New Mexico statute's residence requirement violates the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause. Pp. 616-624.

(a) By dividing resident Vietnam veterans into two groups, based on whether they were residents before May 8, 1976, the statute creates a fixed permanent distinction between classes of concededly bona fide residents. When a state distributes benefits unequally, the distinctions it makes are subject to scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause. Under the minimum-rationality test, a law will survive scrutiny if the distinction rationally furthers a legitimate state purpose. Pp. 616-618.

(b) The distinction New Mexico makes between veterans who established residence before May 8, 1976, and those veterans who arrived in the State thereafter bears no rational relationship to the State's asserted objective of encouraging Vietnam veterans to move to New Mexico. The legislature did not set the eligibility date until 1983, long after the triggering event occurred, and thus cannot plausibly encourage veterans to move to the State by passing such retroactive legislation. Pp. 619-620.

(c) With regard to the asserted purpose of the statute to reward veterans who resided in the State before May 8, 1976, for their military service, the component of compensating veterans for past contributions is plainly legitimate. Consistent with this policy, a state may award certain benefits to all its bona fide veterans, because it then is making neither an invidious nor an irrational distinction among its residents. The New Mexico statute, however, confers a benefit only on "established" resident veterans -- those who resided in the State before May 8,

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1976 -- and the State seeks to justify this distinction on the basis that those veterans who left their homes in New Mexico to fight in Vietnam, as well as those who settled in the State within the few years after the war ended, deserve to be treated differently from veterans who establish New Mexico residence after May 8, 1976. Even assuming that the State may legitimately grant benefits on the basis of a coincidence between military service and past residence, the New Mexico statute's distinction as between two categories of resident veterans is not rationally related to the State's asserted legislative goal. Pp. 620-622.

(d) The New Mexico statute, by singling out previous residents for the tax exemption, rewards only those citizens for their "past contributions" toward the Nation's military effort in Vietnam. Such an objective is not a legitimate state purpose. Zobel v. Williams, 457 U.S. 55. The State may not favor established residents over new residents based on the view that the State may take care of "its own," if such is defined by prior residence. Newcomers, by establishing bona fide residence in the State, become the State's "own" and may not be discriminated against solely on the basis of their arrival in the State after May 8, 1976. Pp. 622-623.

[105 S.Ct. 2864] (e) This Court will not rule on the severability of the unconstitutional residence requirement from the balance of the New Mexico veterans' tax-exemption statute. It is for the New Mexico courts to decide, as a matter of state law, whether the legislature would have enacted the statute without the invalid portion. Pp. 623-624.

101 N.M. 172, 679 P.2d 840, reversed and remanded.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 624. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 624. POWELL, J., took no part in the decision of the case.

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BURGER, J., lead opinion

CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We noted probable jurisdiction to decide whether a New Mexico statute that grants a tax exemption limited to those Vietnam veterans who resided in the State before May 8, 1976, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


Pursuant to Art. VIII, § 5, of the New Mexico Constitution, the New Mexico State Legislature has granted annual property tax exemptions to residents who served in the Armed Forces. As applied to Vietnam veterans currently residing in New Mexico, § 7-37-5 of the New Mexico Statutes1 exempts $2,000 of the taxable value of property for any honorably discharged Vietnam veteran who served on active duty during the Vietnam War for at least 90 continuous days, N.M.Stat.Ann. §§ 7-37-5(C)(1) and (2) (1983), and who was a New Mexico resident before May 8, 1976, § 7-37-5(C)(3)(d).2

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Appellants, Alvin D. Hooper and his wife Mary, established residence in New Mexico on August 17, 1981. During the Vietnam War, Alvin Hooper had served for over 90 continuous days as a member of the United States Army; Hooper was honorably discharged in September 1965. For the 1983 tax year, the Hoopers applied for the $2,000 veterans' tax exemption with respect to their jointly held real property in Bernalillo County. Appellee, the Bernalillo County Assessor, denied the claim because Hooper had not been a state resident before May 8, 1975.

Appellants challenged § 7-37-5(C)(3)(d) as violative of their right to equal protection of the law and their constitutional right to migrate to New Mexico. After a hearing, the Bernalillo County Valuation Board rejected appellants' constitutional challenge and upheld the Assessor's denial of the tax exemption.3

[105 S.Ct. 2865] The New Mexico Court of Appeals affirmed. 101 N.M. 172, 679 P.2d 840, cert. denied, 101 N.M. 77, 678 P.2d 705 (1984). The court, noting that the statute did not affect "such fundamental interests as voting, welfare benefits, or public medical assistance," concluded that the statute did not unconstitutionally burden an exercise of the right to travel. Id. at 175, 679 P.2d at 843. The court held that the statute

Page 616

was consistent with the Equal Protection Clause because it "reflects legitimate state purposes" and "bears a reasonable relationship to those purposes." Ibid. The court reasoned that "[a] state's interest in expressing gratitude and rewarding its own citizens for honorable military service is a rational basis for veterans' preferences," and that the state legislature is "entitled to limit the period of time within which [veterans] may choose to establish residency." Id. at 176, 679 P.2d at 844.

We noted probable jurisdiction. 469 U.S. 878 (1984). We reverse.


The New Mexico veterans' tax exemption differs from the durational residence requirements the Court examined in Sosna v. Iowa, 419 U.S. 393 (1975); Memorial Hospital v. Maricopa County, 415 U.S. 250 (1974); Dunn v. Blumstein, 405 U.S. 330 (1972); and Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 618 (1969). The statutes at issue in those cases conditioned eligibility for certain benefits, otherwise available on an equal basis to all residents, on a new resident's living in the State for a fixed minimum period.4 The durational residence requirements purported to assure that only persons who had established bona fide residence received the benefits provided residents of the States.

The New Mexico statute does not impose any threshold waiting period on those resident veterans seeking the tax exemption; resident veterans are entitled to the exemption provided they satisfy the statute's other criteria. Nor does the statute purport to establish a test of the bona fides of state residence. Instead, the tax exemption contains a fixed-date residence requirement. The statute thus divides

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resident Vietnam veterans into two groups: resident veterans who resided in the State before May 8, 1976, qualify for the exemption;5 resident veterans who established residence after that date do not. Like the Alaska dividend distribution law examined in Zobel v. Williams, 457 U.S. 55 (1982), the tax exemption statute thus creates "fixed, permanent distinctions between . . . classes of concededly [105 S.Ct. 2866] bona fide residents" based on when they arrived in the State. Id. at 59.

Appellants established residence in New Mexico several months after the 1981 amendment set the eligibility date as May 8, 1975. Appellants have no quarrel with the legislature's changing the eligibility date after veterans have chosen to reside in New Mexico, for the enactment date is irrelevant to qualification for the tax exemption. Appellants instead challenge the distinction made by the State within the class of Vietnam veterans who currently are bona fide residents. Their challenge is that the exemption is accorded to those resident Vietnam veterans who resided in...

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