505 U.S. 1 (1992), argued 25 Feb. 1992, decided 18 June 1992 by vote of 8 to 1; Blackmun for the Court, Stevens in dissent.
When Proposition 13 took effect in 1978, it set property taxes in California at 1 percent of the property's value. For property acquired before the proposition took effect, the value was set at the 1975–76 assessment with the additional provision that the tax could not increase more than 2 percent a year. Property bought after 1978 was taxed at essentially the purchase price. In this case, Stephanie Nordlinger discovered that her newly purchased house had a tax on it five times greater than the tax paid by similar houses on her street. She argued that Proposition 13 was unconstitutional because it violated the right to travel by deterring people from moving to California and it violated the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection of the laws.
Justice Harry Blackmun rejected both arguments. Nordlinger had no standing to sue on the first issue, since she was already a state resident when she moved to her new home. California was well within its powers, moreover, to make a public policy decision that favored the preservation of local neighborhoods and prevented rapid turnover of businesses and residences. In any case, new owners knew full well that they would pay more taxes, and if they did not wish to pay such taxes, then they did not have to buy.
Justice John Paul Stevens, the lone dissenter, concluded that the proposition was entirely irrational. It made no sense to treat similarly situated persons differently on the basis of the date they became property owners. Stevens also complained that asking one person to pay five times more for basic services, such as police and fire protection, was clearly unconstitutional. Ironically, efforts by businesses in California to attack the proposition failed, largely because consumers, happy to have their tax breaks, threatened to boycott businesses that sought constitutional relief in the federal courts.
Kermit L. Hall