Roundtable Weekly
Supreme Court Case Challenges Federal Taxation of Unrealized Income
October 13, 2023
The Supreme Court

This week, the Supreme Court announced it will hear oral arguments on Dec. 5 in a case—Moore v. United States—challenging the federal government’s right to tax unrealized gains. (PoliticoPro, Oct. 12)

Moore Consequences

  • The question raised by the petitioners in Moore, and granted certiorari by the Supreme Court in June, is whether the 16th Amendment authorizes Congress to tax unrealized sums without apportionment among the states.

  • Specifically, the case involves a Washington state couple with an interest in an India-based corporation who are challenging a 2017 mandatory repatriation tax on foreign earnings as an unconstitutional levy on unrealized gains.

  • Outside legal and tax commentary and analysis have suggested the case could have far-reaching consequences for both the existing tax code and pending legislative proposals, depending on how the decision is drafted. 

  • A recent report from the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center report estimates that a ruling in favor of the petitioners could result in tax revenue losses exceeding $100 billion annually. Estimates of revenue losses from the Tax Foundation range as low as $3.5 billion and as high as $5.7 trillion in the unlikely event the Supreme Court were to strike down taxes on all undistributed business earnings, whether earned domestically or from foreign sources.

Policy Ramifications

  • A Supreme Court decision in favor of the petitioners could also undercut President Biden’s proposal to tax the unrealized real estate and other gains of wealthy taxpayers. The President and influential lawmakers such as Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) have proposed new mark-to-market taxes on assets based on annual changes in asset values rather than specific realization events. (Roundtable Weekly, Sept. 19, 2019)

  • The Real Estate Roundtable has consistently opposed the proposals to tax unrealized gains since they first emerged in 2019 (Sen. Wyden, Treat Wealth Like Wages, 2019).

JCT Memo

Joint Committee on Taxation logo
  • On Oct. 3, in a letter to House Ways and Means Ranking Democrat Richie Neal (D-MA), the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) provided an analysis of how a ruling for the petitioners in Moore could impact the tax code.

  • JCT informed Rep. Neal that partnership taxes, taxation of shareholders of S corporations, and taxes on mark-to-market valuations also could be implicated in the outcome. The income of real estate mortgage investment conduits, or REMICs, also may be affected, according to JCT’s memo.

Alternatively, notes JCT, the Court could rule that the mandatory repatriation tax is a tax on realized income, in which case it could “leave unanswered the question of whether the Constitution imposes a realization requirement.” (JCT memo, p. 2)