In the first statewide ruling of its kind, the Denver appeals court ruled that a six-year-old passport revocation act for people with high back taxes was constitutional.
In doing so, the U.S. 10th District Court of Appeals declined to designate international travel as a fundamental right that equates to voting or interstate travel and usually requires improved protection against government violations.
Jeffrey T. Maehr of Pagosa Springs had challenged a provision in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015 that allowed the government to refuse or revoke passports for anyone who owed at least $ 50,000 in taxes. The intent was to create an incentive for tax compliance with no obvious connection to international travel.
Maehr, who owes about $ 250,000 in taxes, denied the State Department’s authority to impose such a penalty – a so-called collateral sanction – on the basis of tax debt. A ten-judge panel of three judges sided with the government on Tuesday, finding that the policy was rooted in a reasonable political goal.
“As Mr. Maehr admits, the federal government has a legitimate interest in ‘saving or raising money’ through taxes,” wrote Judge Scott M. Matheson Jr. on the panel’s July 20 statement. “The decision by Congress to advance this legitimate interest by providing for passport withdrawal for those with ‘heavy tax debt’ is reasonable.”
In April 2018, 436,400 taxpayers were eligible for passport revocation, the Internal Revenue Service reported. Due to inflation, the debt ceiling is now $ 54,000. Once a pending tax bill is resolved through full or installment payments – or even compromising the amount owed – the IRS notifies the State Department within 30 days.
Maehr had relied on several decisions by the US Supreme Court from the Cold War era, which he believed established international travel as a fundamental right. In the case of Kent v. For example, in 1958 Dulles was denied a man his passport for refusing to sign an affidavit certifying his membership of the Communist Party. The majority in the court concluded that travel is part of a citizen’s freedom that cannot be taken without a due legal process.
But a Colorado lower court judge dismissed Maehr’s lawsuit, ruling that the Supreme Court never specifically recognized international travel as a highly protected right. Therefore, the government only needed a rational basis for the withdrawal of the passport, and enforcing the tax code was reason enough.
Although the 10th District Board unanimously approved the dismissal, the appellate judges were extremely critical of the arguments of both parties during the hearing in November.
Bennett L. Cohen, Maehr’s attorney, told the panel that it was a fundamental right to travel internationally. Revoking a taxpayer’s passport “is legally equivalent to revoking the right to travel abroad. And not for reasons of national security or foreign policy or public security, but simply to force the payment of debts, which is not constitutional. “
Matheson urged him to identify a case in which courts created such an important right without clear direction from a higher authority.
“Recognizing a fundamental right is a big step for a court, so give me an example of where that happened,” he said.
“All I can give you,” Cohen replied, “is the fact that the Supreme Court recognized the right to travel internationally …”
“No, I didn’t ask that,” interrupted Matheson. Cohen admitted that he “had no jurisdiction to support this argument”.
Senior Judge Carlos F. Lucero, on the other hand, compared a person’s placement in the United States to a debtor’s prison because of their tax liability.
“America began with the pilgrims, with the conquistadors, with a multitude of the first arrivals – the non-indigenous comers on this continent – all came here to exercise a basic human right: namely the right to travel internationally,” said Lucero . “Now we argue that for the purpose of collecting taxes, the United States government … has the power to imprison and fundamentally imprison its citizens to prevent them from traveling abroad.”
He added: “What strikes me about this case is that I thought we were long out of debtors ‘prison, and that certainly looks to me like nothing more than a debtors’ prison.”
The panel ruled that the Supreme Court did not class international travel as a heavily protected right and refused to recognize the right as a district court. Matheson’s opinion rejected Maehr’s assertion that the 800-year-old Magna Carta, which established a fundamental American law, “established the ability of” every man to leave and return our kingdom unscathed and fearless “.
Lucero wrote separately that although many people consider international travel a luxury, “the freedom to leave one’s country and explore the world beyond national borders appears to me to be a deep and fundamental part of human freedom”.
While believing that international travel was a “requirement” for freedom, Lucero ultimately decided that neither party had argued for a review of the constitutionality of the FAST Act to what they believed to be the appropriate standard.
However, Lucero warned: “If I imagine that America is without the right, that citizens are completely deprived of the right to travel internationally, and that borders are closed to all, it would be impossible to consider our country truly free.”
Maehr and his lawyers did not respond immediately to a request for comment. In a legal brief to the 10th District, the attorneys told the court that “Mr. Maehr agrees that depriving them of their constitutional rights can be a very effective way to motivate them to pay debts or do whatever else the government demands of them. “
“Therefore,” they concluded, “lawsuits like this are necessary to maintain a free society.”
The case is Maehr against the US State Department.