The Arizona Tax Court was established by the legislature in 1988 as a department of Maricopa County Superior Court. One of the first such courts in the country, it was designed to provide taxpayers a judicial forum, independent of the Department of Revenue, with the same specialized expertise in tax law, with the goal of promoting consistency. To that end, the Tax Court is given jurisdiction over tax cases statewide (although property tax appeals still may, at the taxpayer’s option, be brought in Superior Court in the county where the property is located); apart from the Supreme Court, it is the only court in Arizona with statewide jurisdiction. Consistency is further advanced by the long-term commitment of the judges who preside over the Tax Court: since the appointment of Judge William T. Moroney Jr. in 1988, only eight people, including the currently assigned judge, Christopher T. Whitten, have held the position.
The Tax Court is currently located in the historic Old Courthouse at 125 West Washington Street in downtown Phoenix, in the very courtroom where Sandra Day O’Connor presided when she sat on the Superior Court bench in the 1970s (her bailiff, since admitted to the bar, has argued before the Tax Court in that room). The law allows the Tax Court to hear cases in other county seats (at that county’s expense), but to date that option has not been exercised; there have been experiments with trying small claims cases outside Phoenix, but none is currently active.
The Tax Court is small. The latest figures available, for fiscal year 2015, show 1,033 cases filed with the prefix TX, fewer than 0.5% of all filings in Maricopa County Superior Court; the great majority of these are commercial property tax appeals. But the number does not reflect the full activity of the Tax Court. Few Tax Court cases end with a formal trial; in fiscal year 2015, only twelve took place (all decided by the judge as factfinder – although either party can demand a jury trial, very few do). Often, the basic facts are uncontested, and the dispute is over matters of law, such as whether a property qualifies for a favorable tax rate. Many of these can be resolved by the parties arguing preliminary motions to dismiss. They may be heard early in the litigation, but they just as frequently demand resolution of complex issues integrating statutory texts, judicial precedents, and property appraisal practices in such a way as to remain faithful to the past while recognizing the reality of today’s economy.
Attached to the Tax Court is the Small Claims Tax Court. It provides an optional simplified procedure, primarily for residential property tax appeals (there is no maximum valuation for primary residences; the maximum for non-residential property taxes is a valuation of $2,000,000, and for all taxes other than property taxes the maximum is a total assessed tax of $5000.) Cases are heard by a court commissioner or judge pro tempore. There is much less formality, and trials usually wrap up in one or two hours. Unlike cases heard in Tax Court, there is no appeal from a small claims judgment.
In 1988, the legislature hoped that the Tax Court they were creating would serve as a repository of institutional knowledge. The past thirty years have shown the wisdom of their action. In a relatively recent development, Tax Court rulings indicative of its interpretation of the tax laws are posted on the Maricopa County Superior Court website, providing taxpayers with some sense of how the Court may rule in their own cases (although only the handful of opinions published in the official Arizona Reports have precedential value). The Tax Court continues to advance reasoned and consistent application of Arizona’s tax laws.
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