Setting Limits on the Government’s Power to Tax: Final Victory for Charlottesville Author
An author shouldn’t need a business license to sit at his desk and write stories. After all, the cost of a business license is intended to defray the public cost that businesses impose on their communities, such as increased traffic, burden on utilities, and the like. Requiring an author to obtain such a license—when he sees no customers, sells no goods, and provides no services—simply makes no sense.
Thankfully, in June, the Virginia Supreme Court agreed and affirmed IJ’s trial court victory on behalf of Corban Addison, a Charlottesville author who had paid thousands of dollars into local government coffers just for the privilege of writing in the city limits. Now he and other authors in the city are getting that money back.
Corban first partnered with IJ to challenge Charlottesville’s business license requirement in 2019, after the city surprised him with a tax bill after years of leaving him alone. But though the city was looking for new ways to raise revenue, it instead found a lawsuit.
After three hard-fought years of litigation, the Virginia high court’s decision in some ways states the obvious. Charlottesville’s money grab was a bridge too far because vague laws imposing taxes are to be construed against the government and in favor of the taxpayer. Liberty & Law readers may be surprised that this proposition was ever in question, and IJ is delighted to remove any doubt.
The decision has wide implications. Corban is just one of many authors and artists living and working in the Charlottesville area who have been paying an unconstitutional tax. City tax officials have already begun calling some of these authors to inform them about the decision and promise them refunds. IJ challenged a similar tax in Albemarle County on behalf of bestselling author John Hart, and the decision in Corban’s case clearly applies to him as well. Likewise, many other Virginia municipalities have virtually identical laws.
If Charlottesville wants to tax authors like Corban, it cannot do so by bureaucratic fiat—it’s going to have to overhaul its code completely and vote on the matter publicly. And that is the way it should be. Democratic accountability is especially important where taxes are concerned. As a friend-of-the-court brief filed on IJ’s behalf pointed out, business license taxes hurt businesses and consumers. At a minimum, business license taxes must be clear about who is being taxed and how much. That way, people can know which communities are the best fit for their businesses.
Thanks to this victory, Charlottesville-area authors will feel much more at home in their city. As for Corban, he has something else to celebrate because June also saw the launch of his latest book. Thanks to the support of Liberty & Law readers, more of Corban’s hard-earned money can be put into promoting his work, creating new stories, and caring for his family. The same will soon be true for John Hart and many other Virginians.
Renée Flaherty is an IJ attorney.
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