EDMOND — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a weekly series of columns written by attorneys at Lester, Loving & Davies law firm in Edmond.
Q: Does taxing different people at different rates violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution?
A: Federal law goes to great ends to create an even playing field for all people in the United States. But the depth and breadth of our rights to equal treatment are difficult to measure and even harder to define. Start by putting the concept of fairness out of mind.
The framers of the Constitution provided for equal protection, not equitable protection. The concept of equity in the law is closely akin to fairness. Equity seeks what is just. Equality, on the other hand, is not about fairness or justice. Equality is about making things the same. Making things the same, and making things fair, are separate and distinct goals. The Equal Protection Clause addresses only the former.
The federal Equal Protection Clause, stated in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prohibits government from denying the equal protection of its laws to any person within its jurisdiction. No person or class of people may be denied the same protection of laws enjoyed by other people or classes of people under the same circumstances. We are guaranteed equal enjoyment of personal rights and the prevention and redress of wrongs, with each of us following the same set of rules.
But you may have noticed that not all people are treated equally — that laws prohibit some people from doing things that other people are fee to do. Blind people are not allowed to drive cars. Seventeen-year-olds cannot vote. Known pedophiles cannot live near schools. Why doesn’t the Equal Protection Clause protect their right to do the things that others are free to do?
The quick answer — a gross oversimplification — is that the law can place people into classes for the purpose of disparate treatment. Usually the rational basis test applies. If there is a conceivable basis for treating people or classes differently under the circumstances, and that basis is reasonable, then the law may treat the people or classes differently without offending the Equal Protection Clause.
Tax laws may treat people differently as long as they use real — not feigned — differences to put people in classes and the distinction between the classes is related to the purpose for which the classification is made. In such circumstances, unequal taxation will not violate the Equal Protection Clause unless the classification is completely arbitrary.