482 U. S. 117
June 1, 1987
Asphalt Products filed a tax return for 1974 which did not adequately reflect its true income and costs. In particular, the IRS objected to the deduction of some truck transportation expenses, and charged that Asphalt Products was negligent to have claimed this deduction. According to the tax code, if underpayment of taxes is even partially due to negligence, a 5% penalty on the total amount of taxes owed is levied. Asphalt Products protested that the 5% penalty should only be assessed on the amount of underpayment caused by negligence, and not on the entire amount of taxes.
The Court rejected this contention 7-2. In a per curiam decision, the Court simply declared that the text of the tax code was crystal clear on the issue. The Court hinted that they did believe the penalty was unfair, but concluded that only Congress could decide whether or not to change the law. Blackmun dissented – he wanted the case to at least get oral argument. “I hope the Court’s action is not due to an innate reluctance to review a federal income tax case,” he muttered. Marshall dissented too, as he almost always did in summary judgments. In addition, he actually thought that the Court’s ruling might have been against the intent of Congress.
Legally, the decision was probably correct, even though the underlying statutory rule was awful. But what really upset me as I read this decision was one remark in the Marshall dissent. He said “it appears the reason for summarily reversing the judgment of the Court of Appeals in this case is simply that the majority perceives it to be wrong. But this Court routinely denies petitions for certiorari seeking review of decisions that, on the face of the petitions or the petitions and responses, appear to be wrong.“
Even though it’s easy enough to guess, there it is in black and white – the Supreme Court routinely declines to overturn lower court rulings that it believes are wrong. This is an utter abdication of judicial duty, an abominable moral failing of the Court as an institution. Every year, hundreds of poor, innocent people, whose only hope for justice is the Supreme Court, are denied that justice merely because their case is not doctrinally important enough. Caring more about doctrine than the men and women who suffer from unjust court rulings is appalling and evil. If I were a Supreme Court Justice, I would file an angry dissent to every single unjust denial of certiorari, to expose the Court as the lair of heartless apathy that it is.