480 U. S. 123
February 24, 1987
South Dakota placed a property tax on aircrafts, but the proceeds of that tax were used entirely for the benefits of airports and airlines. Two decades after this tax was first imposed, Congress passed a law banning property taxes on aircrafts unless the tax was an “in lieu tax which is wholly utilized for airport and aeronautical purposes.” On its face, the South Dakota tax appeared to be squarely within the letter of this exception, but that didn’t stop several airline companies from filing suit against the collection of the tax.
O’Connor wrote for a unanimous Court, upholding the property tax. The airlines claimed that the words “in lieu” meant that the tax must actually replace a previous tax. O’Connor patiently explained that “in lieu” meant ‘to the exclusion of any other form of property tax which could potentially be levied.’ O’Connor is to be commended for her constraint – I would have simply said “Your argument is self-evidently stupid. Stop wasting our time.” White wrote a brief concurrence, which stated his agreement with the majority opinion, and also his belief that the Court should not have taken the case.
Favorite quote from the majority opinion: “South Dakota could satisfy appellants’ interpretation of § 1513(d)(3) by simply amending its tax code so that its airline flight property tax took some other form, then the following session substituting for that tax a tax utilized wholly for aeronautical purposes. This exercise of replacing one tax with another, while contributing somewhat to a state legislature’s workload, would contribute nothing to the policies of the Airport and Airway Improvement Act.“