Make Minnesota Tax Court accountable to the people

  • Article by: ROBERT HILL
  • Updated: June 17, 2013 - 10:28 AM

Recent developments point out the flaws in its basic structure.

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 The recent removal of George W. Perez from his seat on the Minnesota Tax Court highlights the need to reexamine the court’s integrity and relationship with Minnesota taxpayers.

On May 10, 2013, the Minnesota State Board on Judicial Standards Hearing Panel issued its opinion regarding Perez’s actions as a tax court judge. The panel found that he regularly violated the Minnesota statute governing the need to make timely decisions in tax cases. These violations occurred over many years.

The panel also took its decision one step further, stating that Perez’s actions directly impact the court’s integrity and reputation:

“Judges cannot be allowed to ignore the requirements of statute or to manipulate those requirements to obfuscate or excuse a delay in doing their work,” the opinion states. “The egregious pattern in this case needs to be recognized and dealt with in a manner that will promote confidence in the judiciary and deter such behavior in the future.”

The flaws pointed out in the panel opinion implicate the legislation that created the court. Unlike most courts — such as Minnesota district courts and the Minnesota Court of Appeals — the Minnesota Tax Court is not under the jurisdiction of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Rather, it is an agency of the Department of Finance and therefore part of the executive branch of government. Judges are appointed by the governor and are not elected by the taxpayers. This means there is no way for Minnesota taxpayers to hold the judges on the Tax Court accountable electorally if they are dissatisfied with a particular judge’s lack of performance.

I see three possible reforms that would help ensure the integrity of the tax court going forward.

• Option one: The tax court could become part of the judicial branch, under the jurisdiction of the state Supreme Court. Judges would still be appointed by the governor, but Minnesota residents would be able to run against them in elections. This would create a level of accountability not available under the current practice. A review system is also built into courts overseen by the state Supreme Court, where judges’ work is routinely reviewed and audited.

• Option two: If the court is kept as part of the executive branch, a citizen committee should be formed to audit and review judges and their decisions. In 2011, Gov. Mark Dayton instructed then Chief Judge Perez to create the Minnesota Tax Court Development and Performance Review Program, which was supposed to serve as a review process for the Minnesota Tax Court. To my knowledge, this committee was never formed. Taking this idea and putting it into practice, appointing volunteer stakeholders as members, and empowering this group to review judges would create a system of accountability and discipline.

• Option three: If neither of these potential solutions occurs, mandatory arbitration should be available for taxpayers as a form of alternate dispute resolution. The taxpayer would present his or her case to an arbitrator, who would decide the appeal in a summary fashion. The decision would be binding. The state of Georgia recently enacted this tax-court alternative, and the majority of cases are settled this way, because it is less expensive than carrying a tax case through trial.

Without reform, there will continue to be lack of oversight with respect to the Minnesota Tax Court, and taxpayers will remain at the mercy of the whims of the court. The Perez incident should not be treated as an isolated event; instead, it should be seen as the result of systemic flaws that need to be addressed. As the lessons from the Perez case are still fresh in the minds of legislators and the public, now is the time to discuss and examine how our Minnesota Tax Court operates, to ensure that such misconduct never happens again.

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Robert Hill is an attorney representing businesses in property tax litigation, appeals and negotiations.

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