The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear the case of Monica Toth, an 82-year-old grandmother who was fined over $2 million by the IRS for failing to file a one-page form. Represented by the Institute for Justice, Monica fought back in court, arguing that the government violated her rights under the Eighth Amendment, which unequivocally bans the government from imposing “excessive fines.”
But to bypass the Excessive Fines Clause, the government argued it didn’t fine Monica, but instead, subjected her to a “civil penalty.” Incredibly, both a federal district court and the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals accepted this argument and ruled against Monica.
“Monica’s experience shows that civil penalties can have devastating consequences for real people,” said Sam Gedge, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “The Excessive Fines Clause should serve as a key check on economic sanctions.”
In a short dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch had little patience for the government’s semantics. The “fundamental” safeguards offered by the Excessive Fines Clause, Justice Gorsuch wrote, “would mean little if the government could evade constitutional scrutiny under the Clause’s terms by the simple expedient of fixing a ‘civil’ label on the fines it imposes and declining to pursue any related ‘criminal’ case.” “Far from permitting that kind of maneuver,” he added, “this Court has warned the Constitution guards against it.”