Washington v. United States

RESPONDENT:United States
LOCATION:Bleckly County Superior Court

DOCKET NO.: 81-969
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 460 US 536 (1983)
ARGUED: Jan 10, 1983
DECIDED: Mar 29, 1983

Kenneth O. Eikenberry – on behalf of the Appellants
Stuart A. Smith – on behalf of the United States

Facts of the case


Media for Washington v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 10, 1983 in Washington v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 29, 1983 in Washington v. United States

Warren E. Burger:

The judgment an opinion in Washington and others against the United States will be announced by Justice Rehnquist.

William H. Rehnquist:

The issue in this case is whether a part of the Washington state sales tax system is unconstitutional.

The Washington sales tax law treats most sales of construction project as retail sales and requires the buyer for whom the project is built to pay the tax.

The law treats sales of materials to contractors as wholesale sales and therefore, it doesn’t require anyone to pay tax on most transactions.

The system doesn’t work the way Washington wants it to when the Federal Government buys a construction project, because this Court is long held the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution forbids the State from imposing a tax directly on United States.

Therefore, Washington is required that contractors who work for the Federal Government to pay sales tax on the material they buy.

Thus, when a construction project is built for a private party, the buyer pay sales tax on the entire cost of the project and the contractor pays no tax, but when the construction project is built for the Federal Government, the contractor pays sales tax on the cost of the materials but the United States, which is the buyer, pays no tax.

The United States sued Washington in the Federal District Court of Seattle claiming that the sales tax on contractors discriminates against the United States and contractors it worked for in violation of the Supremacy Clause.

The District Court agreed with United States.

The Court of Appeals from the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Washington appealed to this Court and in an opinion filed today with the clerk we reverse the judgment of the Ninth Circuit.

As we explain more fully in the opinion, we hold that the Washington statute is constitutional because it does not discriminate against the United States.

Federal Constitution projects are taxed with the same rate as private project and the tax is imposed only on the cost of materials instead of on the whole shebang.

Since the Federal Government and contractors who worked for had pay less sales tax than anyone else who build the project in Washington, they’re not only not discriminated against, they’re better off.

Washington is simply accommodated for the fact that it is not permitted to tax the Federal Government directly.

We hold that it may do this without running afoul of the Supremacy Clause.

Justice Blackmun has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices White, Marshall, and Stevens joined.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you Justice Rehnquist.