Williams v. City of Philadelphia (majority)Annotate this Case
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowed this appeal to address the City of Philadelphia's so-called "soda tax." In June 2016, City Council enacted the challenged ordinance, which imposed a tax regarding specified categories of drinks sold, or intended to be sold, in the municipal limits. Appellants -- a group of consumers, retailers, distributors, producers, and trade associations -- filed suit against the City and the Commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Revenue, in the court of common pleas, challenging the legality and constitutionality of the tax and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. The common pleas court differentiated the soda tax as a “non-retail, distribution level tax” and that the tax did not apply to the same transaction or subject as the state sales tax, thus, no violation of the "Sterling Act," Act of August 5, 1932, Ex. Sess., P.L. 45 (as amended 53 P.S. sections 15971–15973). A divided, en banc panel of the Commonwealth Court affirmed, the majority reasoning that in determining whether a tax was duplicative, the focus is upon the incidence of the tax; such incidence is ultimately determined according to the substantive text of the enabling legislation; and the concept of legal incidence does not concern post-tax economic actions of private actors. Because the City’s beverage tax and the state sales and use tax are imposed on different, albeit related, transactions and measured on distinct terms, the majority likewise concluded that the Sterling Act was not offended. The Supreme Court affirmed, finding that the Sterling Act conferred upon the City "a broad taxing power subject to preemption," while clarifying that “any and all subjects” are available for local taxation which the Commonwealth could, but does not presently, tax. The Commonwealth could, but did not, tax the distributor/dealer-level transactions or subjects targeted by the soda tax. "Moreover, the legal incidences of the Philadelphia tax and the Commonwealth’s sales and use tax are different and, accordingly, Sterling Act preemption does not apply."