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BALLARD et ux. v. COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE, 544 U.S. ---

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BALLARD et ux. v. COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

No. 03-184.Argued December 7, 2004--Decided March 7, 2005*

The Tax Court's Chief Judge appoints auxiliary officers, called special trial judges, to hear certain cases, 26 U. S. C. §7443A(a), (b), but ultimate decision, when tax deficiencies exceed $50,000, is reserved for the court itself, §7443A(b)(5), (c). Tax Court Rule 183(b) governs the two-tiered proceedings in which a special trial judge hears the case, but the court renders the final decision. Rule 183(b) directs that, after trial and submission of briefs, the special trial judge "shall submit a report, including findings of fact and opinion, to the Chief Judge, [who] will assign the case to a Judge ... of the Court." In acting on the report, the assigned Tax Court judge must give "[d]ue regard ... to the circumstance that the [s]pecial [t]rial [j]udge had the opportunity to evaluate the credibility of the witnesses," must "presum[e] to be correct" factfindings contained in the report, and "may adopt the [s]pecial [t]rial [j]udge's report or may modify it or may reject it in whole or in part." Rule 183(c). Until 1983, such special trial judge reports were made public and included in the record on appeal. Pursuant to a rule revision that year, those reports are now withheld from the public and excluded from the appellate record, and Tax Court judges do not disclose whether the final decision "modi[fies]" or "reject[s]" the special trial judge's initial report. Instead, the final decision invariably begins with a stock statement that the Tax Court judge "agrees with and adopts the opinion of the [s]pecial [t]rial [j]udge." Whether and how the final decision deviates from the special trial judge's original report is never revealed.

Petitioners Claude Ballard, Burton Kanter, and another taxpayer received notices of deficiency from respondent Commissioner of Internal Revenue (Commissioner) charging them with failure to report certain payments on their individual tax returns and with tax fraud. They filed petitions for redetermination in the Tax Court, where the Chief Judge assigned the consolidated case to Special Trial Judge Couvillion. After trial, Judge Couvillion submitted a Rule 183(b) report to the Chief Judge, who issued an order assigning the case to Tax Court Judge Dawson "for review [of that report], and if approved, for adoption." Ultimately, Judge Dawson issued the Tax Court's decision, finding that the taxpayers had acted with intent to deceive the Commissioner, and holding them liable for underpaid taxes and substantial fraud penalties. That decision, consisting wholly of a document labeled "Opinion of the Special Trial Judge," declared: "The Court agrees with and adopts the opinion of the Special Trial Judge, which is set forth below."


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