Town of Ball v. Rapides Parish Police Jury

Decision Date19 November 1984
Docket NumberNo. 82-4365,82-4365
PartiesTOWN OF BALL, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. RAPIDES PARISH POLICE JURY, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Watson, Murchison, Crews, Arthur & Corkern, William P. Crews, Jr., R. Raymond Arthur, Natchitoches, La., for plaintiffs-appellants.

Howard B. Gist, Jr., Howard B. Gist, III, Alexandria, La., for City of Alexandria.

Gary Partney, Alexandria, La., for Town of Glenmora and Forest Hill.

Edwin O. Ware, III, Dist. Atty., Gus Voltz, Jr., Alexandria, La., for Rapides Parish Police Jury, Rapides Parish School Board & Town of Cheneyville.

Downs & Downs, James Crawford Downs, Alexandria, La., for Town of Boyce.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.

Before BROWN, REAVLEY and RANDALL, Circuit Judges.

JOHN R. BROWN, Circuit Judge:

The appellants 1 before the Court today 2 are the third largest and fastest growing city in Rapides Parish, Louisiana and several of its residents. They complain that each of the incorporated municipalities in the Parish, from the smallest village to the largest city, receives a share of the revenues generated from a parish-wide sales tax--each, that is, except the Town of Ball. The citizens of Ball pay the tax like citizens of the other municipalities. The Town, however, gets no individual share of the resulting funds. Although, as we explain in some detail, the citizens of Ball suffer what would otherwise be regarded as inequitable discrimination we affirm denial of relief by a Federal Court. Applying a rational relationship test we find no basis for the claim of denial of the equal protection of the laws.

The Parish's Plan

Since 1957 Louisiana has allowed certain of its parishes to levy and collect through their governing bodies a 1% tax on the retail sale and use of tangible personal property and upon the sale of services in the parish. 3 The Rapides Parish Police Jury, as the governing body of Rapides Parish, proposed such a sales and use tax for that parish in 1967. The proposal specified the precise percentage distribution of the resulting tax revenues among the Parish Police Jury, the Parish School Board, and, importantly, each of the nine municipalities then incorporated in the Parish. 4 Further, the proposition detailed the permissible uses of the revenue. 5 On September 19, 1967, the proposal was approved in a referendum by a majority of the voting citizens of the Parish.

Ball, as an incorporated Louisiana municipality, came into existence some five years later by proclamation of the Governor 6 in June 1972. The tax distribution plan, however, was not drafted to account for a newly-incorporated municipality. 7 Consequently, for now over a decade every incorporated city in the Parish has been directly receiving a portion of the Parish tax revenues except the Town of Ball. 8 The citizens of Ball have forked over their share of fiscal fixings for 12 years, but when the annual economic entree is ready to be served the Town has never had a place at the Parish table. 9

In May 1976, the appellants brought suit in federal court against the eleven governmental bodies receiving funds under the plan. They asserted that the Parish plan transgressed the right of the Town's residents to constitutional due process and equal protection. 10 They sought, alternatively, the Town's fair share of all revenue produced from the tax since the Town's incorporation in 1972; its fair share in all current and future revenue produced from the tax; an injunction barring further collection of the tax so long as its distribution remained unconstitutional; and other general and equitable relief. In March 1977, the District Court held that the action was precluded by 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1341 and dismissed the suit. This Court reversed that judgment in June 1979. See supra, n. 1.

Less than four months later, the Parish Police Jury proposed a revision to the distribution scheme which would have included the Town as a direct recipient of the tax revenues. 11 On December 8, 1979, a majority of the voting Parish citizens rejected the new plan, 12 and the distribution scheme now embodied in section 23-207, see supra, n. 3, remained unchanged. 13

Thereafter, the parties agreed to a determination by the Trial Judge on the merits based on stipulated facts and briefs. In September 1982, the District Court held for the Parish and the other defendants. It declined to interfere in "[a] political decision ... made by the citizens of Rapides Parish as to how the tax money should be distributed." 14 It reasoned that

[T]he tax referendum distribution scheme did not discriminate in any manner against Ball at the time it was passed. If there is any discrimination it is due to the voluntary act of residents of the Town of Ball to incorporate--they created the class. Under Ball's theory any time a few people decided to incorporate, the entire distribution scheme of the parish sales tax would come to a halt.

The appellants noticed their appeal and reurge their constitutional claims to this Court. 15 Before we reach the gist of their complaint, however, we must address two arguments raised by the Parish.

Is There a Right to a Refund?

The Parish first argues that this is merely a suit to force it to refund to Ball the amount of sales tax previously and currently paid by citizens of the Town. It quite accurately points out that the Supreme Court "has repudiated the suggestion, whenever made, that the Constitution requires the benefits derived from the expenditure of public moneys to be apportioned to the burdens of the taxpayer." 16

This argument misreads the aim of the appellants. They seek only to be treated on equal terms with all other residents of incorporated municipalities in the Parish. Nonetheless, we do not dispute the Parish's point. As the District Court correctly held, the appellants have no claim to "benefits due from amounts paid." See supra, n. 16 and accompanying text. But, of course, that well-established principle does not resolve this case.

Does Equal Protection Apply?

More relevant is the Parish's second and main argument in its defense. It asserts that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution simply does not apply to a state's actions or policies in distributing its tax revenues and thus has no bearing on section 23-207. 17

Although we find no controlling precedent on this issue, 18 our answer to whether a state need conform to the basic requirements of equal protection in distributing tax revenues is instead clearly indicated in the present and historical breadth of the Clause. But, as we point out, this is just the beginning: accepting the idea that equal protection applies, the real question then becomes: did the enacting body have a rational basis for the disputed action?

The Clause was enacted in 1868 as part of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was directed at the destructive continuing racial discrimination after the Civil War. Like many of the fundamental provisions in the Constitution, the terms of equal protection were hardly limited and, at the same time, are less than instructive: 19

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

But it is clear that, at least on its face, the Clause has no exception for a state when it distributes its tax revenues.

Initially, the Clause was narrowly construed. 20 It was given a backseat to the Due Process Clause, which was also enacted in the Fourteenth Amendment. In fact equal protection was so disfavored that, during the heyday of "Lochnerizing," 21 it was called "the usual last resort of constitutional arguments." 22

Despite its hesitant judicial adoption, however, equal protection is no longer an orphan of the Civil War Amendments. The Clause reaches far beyond its original aim of discriminations by race. 23 Its language was not limited to racial considerations. Rather, its guarantee is both simple and wide--equal and uniform governmental classifications. 24 Since, basically, all laws or rules in some way classify, 25 it is not surprising then that the Clause has become so central. Equal protection may even be "an aspect of [a] broader constitutional requirement that there must be a 'rational' connection between legislative means and ends." 26

Obviously, the present scope of the Clause is indeed broad. But it is clear that the Supreme Court applied the requirements of equal protection to classifications in what can be termed "economic" legislation long before the emergence of modern equal protection. In fact, we find no instance where the Supreme Court has specifically held a particular form of fiscal lawmaking to be wholly outside the voluminous skirt of equal protection. 27 In short, the Supreme Court finds nothing constitutionally sacred about economic lawmaking, and has reviewed the most common state economic regulations. 28 Moreover, the Court has long examined tax assessment 29 and exemption 30 plans. Of crucial if not conclusive relevance, however, is that the Court has routinely subjected state revenue expenditure and financing programs to the requirements of equal protection. 31 In these cases there is not the faintest intimation that while a state is restricted to uniformity and equality in deciding how and from whom it will raise state revenues it is loosed of this constitutional tether the moment it begins to spend the funds that it collects.

When equal protection was a constitutional plea of last resort, the Parish's argument may have had merit. That era has surely passed. Equal protection has become a stout shield for protecting against the discriminatory bite of governmental classification. As the Supreme Court has stated, when a state distributes benefits unequally, the distinctions it makes are subject to the scrutiny of equal protection. 32 Here,...

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