Tuesday, June 6, 2017
California Supreme Court Holds:
Citizen Need Not Be Property Owner to Challenge Spending
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A statute permitting a citizen to mount a court challenge to the lawfulness of spending by the city or county in which he or she resides and is liable for payment of a tax does not limit standing to those who pay property taxes, the California Supreme Court held yesterday.
The statute, Code of Civil Procedure §526a, provides:
“An action to obtain a judgment, restraining and preventing any illegal expenditure of, waste of, or injury to, the estate, funds, or other property of a county, town, city or city and county of the state, may be maintained against any officer thereof, or any agent, or other person, acting in its behalf, either by a citizen resident therein, or by a corporation, who is assessed for and is liable to pay, or, within one year before the commencement of the action, has paid, a tax therein.”
Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar said:
“At the heart of this case is the question of how to read the phrase ‘who is assessed for and is liable to pay...or, has paid, a tax therein.’ ”
Sales, Gas Taxes
The plaintiff, Cherrity Weatherford, brought suit under §526a against the City of San Rafael and the County of Marin, in which she rented an apartment, to enjoin practices in connection with the impounding of vehicles. She claimed to have standing, under §526a, because she had paid sales tax, gasoline tax, and water and sewage fees in the city and the county.
Her action was dismissed by the Superior Court, on the ground that she does not pay property tax, and the judgment of dismissal was affirmed by the Court of Appeal.
In his May 22, 2014 opinion for the First District’s Div. One, Court of Appeal Justice Robert L. Dondero wrote:
“We agree with existing appellate decisions that hold payment of an assessed property tax is required in order for a party to have standing to pursue a taxpayer action.”
Went Too Far
Explaining the Supreme Court’s reversal, Cuéllar declared:
“Section 526a does narrow the category of taxpayers able to sue to enjoin certain expenditures of governmental funds. But the Court of Appeal traveled a step too far when it held that the statute requires individual plaintiffs to pay a property tax. Although we need not delineate the precise outer limits of the statute’s operation, we can conclude with confidence that limiting its application to property taxpayers reflects an unduly constrained view of the statute’s requirements. To begin, nothing in the statute’s language suggests such a cramped conception of taxpayer standing. It is no doubt true that the statute’s conception of an ‘assessed’ tax encompasses property taxes….Yet the conclusion that property taxes satisfy the statute’s requirement for standing does not suggest that only such taxes suffice. As a matter of statutory drafting, the Legislature could easily have written the statute to restrict standing only to those who pay property taxes. That no such limitation appears in the statute is a strong indication that the statute’s invocation of an ‘assessed’ tax is a general description, not a proxy for the term ‘property tax.’ ”
Cuéllar said the statute has been interpreted as a means of granting a large body of citizenry an opportunity to challenge governmental actions in court that would otherwise evade scrutiny. He commented:
“Limiting individual plaintiffs’ use of the statute to those who pay property taxes is simply incompatible with the recognized need to construe the statute broadly. The Court of Appeal erred in holding to the contrary.”
In a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Goodwin Liu, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said the 1909 statute is comprised of “87 words parsed by 19 commas,” and is “not a model of clarity.” She commented:
“The archaic language of section 526a has not evolved alongside the increasing complexities concerning how residents are taxed and how those proceeds fund local government entities. Accordingly, I encourage the Legislature to revisit section 526a in order to clarify the criteria necessary to confer taxpayer standing.”
Justice Leondra Kruger, also joined by Liu, also penned a concurring opinion in which she pointed to questions relating to the statute that remain unresolved.
The plaintiff in the case has moved to the State of Washington, Cuéllar related in a footnote, advising:
“On remand, the superior court may consider what effect, if any, Weatherford’s decision has on her ability to continue this lawsuit.”
The case is Weatherford v. Marin County, 17 S.O.S. 2825.
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