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U.S. Supreme Court

Hooper v. Bernalillo County Assessor, 472 U.S. 612 (1985)

Hooper v. Bernalillo County Assessor

No. 84-231

Argued February 20, 1985

Decided June 24, 1985

472 U.S. 612


A New Mexico statute exempts from the State's property tax $2,000 of the taxable value of property of honorably discharged veterans who served on active duty during the Vietnam War for at least 90 continuous days, but limits the exemption to veterans who were New Mexico residents before May 8, 1976. Appellants, an otherwise qualified Vietnam veteran and his wife, established residence in New Mexico in 1981 and applied for the tax exemption for the 1983 tax year with respect to their jointly held real property in Bernalillo County. Appellee County Assessor denied the claim because of the residence requirement, and the County Valuation Board upheld the denial, rejecting appellants' contention that the residence requirement violated their Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection of the law. The New Mexico Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The New Mexico statute's residence requirement violates the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause. Pp. 472 U. S. 616-624.

(a) By dividing resident Vietnam veterans into two groups, based on whether they were residents before May 8, 1976, the statute creates a fixed permanent distinction between classes of concededly bona fide residents. When a state distributes benefits unequally, the distinctions it makes are subject to scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause. Under the minimum-rationality test, a law will survive scrutiny if the distinction rationally furthers a legitimate state purpose. Pp. 472 U. S. 616-618.

(b) The distinction New Mexico makes between veterans who established residence before May 8, 1976, and those veterans who arrived in the State thereafter bears no rational relationship to the State's asserted objective of encouraging Vietnam veterans to move to New Mexico. The legislature did not set the eligibility date until 1983, long after the triggering event occurred, and thus cannot plausibly encourage veterans to move to the State by passing such retroactive legislation. Pp. 472 U. S. 619-620.

(c) With regard to the asserted purpose of the statute to reward veterans who resided in the State before May 8, 1976, for their military service, the component of compensating veterans for past contributions is plainly legitimate. Consistent with this policy, a state may award certain benefits to all its bona fide veterans, because it then is making neither an invidious nor an irrational distinction among its residents. The New Mexico statute, however, confers a benefit only on "established" resident veterans -- those who resided in the State before May 8,

Page 472 U. S. 613

1976 -- and the State seeks to justify this distinction on the basis that those veterans who left their homes in New Mexico to fight in Vietnam, as well as those who settled in the State within the few years after the war ended, deserve to be treated differently from veterans who establish New Mexico residence after May 8, 1976. Even assuming that the State may legitimately grant benefits on the basis of a coincidence between military service and past residence, the New Mexico statute's distinction as between two categories of resident veterans is not rationally related to the State's asserted legislative goal. Pp. 472 U. S. 620-622.

(d) The New Mexico statute, by singling out previous residents for the tax exemption, rewards only those citizens for their "past contributions" toward the Nation's military effort in Vietnam. Such an objective is not a legitimate state purpose. Zobel v. Williams, 457 U. S. 55. The State may not favor established residents over new residents based on the view that the State may take care of "its own," if such is defined by prior residence. Newcomers, by establishing bona fide residence in the State, become the State's "own" and may not be discriminated against solely on the basis of their arrival in the State after May 8, 1976. Pp. 472 U. S. 622-623.

(e) This Court will not rule on the severability of the unconstitutional residence requirement from the balance of the New Mexico veterans' tax-exemption statute. It is for the New Mexico courts to decide, as a matter of state law, whether the legislature would have enacted the statute without the invalid portion. Pp. 472 U. S. 623-624.

101 N.M. 172, 679 P.2d 840, reversed and remanded.

BURGER, C.J.,delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 472 U. S. 624. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 472 U. S. 624. POWELL, J., took no part in the decision of the case.

Page 472 U. S. 614

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