On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 180 N.J. Super. 175 (1981).
For affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Schreiber and Pollock. For reversal -- Justices Pashman and O'Hern. Pashman, J., dissenting. Justice O'Hern joins in this dissent.
The judgment is affirmed substantially for the reasons expressed in the opinion of the Appellate Division, reported at 180 N.J. Super. 175 (1981).
I would reverse the Appellate Division judgment substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Conley writing for the Tax Court below, Mills v. East Windsor Tp., 176 N.J. Super. 271 (Tax Ct. 1980). I add several observations.
The majority upholds the Appellate Division determination that plaintiffs are not entitled to tax rebates under N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.80(a). The Appellate Division reasoned that since the statutory language is "outspoken and unambiguous," courts "must enforce the legislative will as written." 180 N.J. Super. 175, 177-79 (1981). The court further concluded that even if the statutory language were ambiguous, tax preference provisions must be strictly construed against those claiming exemption. Id. at 178. These principles, according to the Appellate Division, end the inquiry. To look to other indications of legislative purpose or to consider such criteria as "equity and common sense," id. at 179-80, would "preempt the legislative function." Id. at 180.
I agree that where the plain language of a statute suggests a certain result and there are no indications of legislative intent to
the contrary, the Court's job is clear. However that is not this case. Words take meaning from their context. Failure to consider relevant statutory policies and statutory history may cause courts to frustrate rather than implement the legislative will. The plain meaning rule does not compel us to view the statutory language out of context. Nor does it require us to ignore the history of the statute, its scope and its relation to other legislative enactments. As Justice Handler said in Unemployed-Employed Council of N.J., Inc. v. Horn, 85 N.J. 646, 655 (1981), "statutory language must be read perceptively and sensibly with a view toward fulfilling the legislative intent."
Judges invented the rule that tax exemptions are strictly construed because they presumed that legislatures intend all citizens to pay their fair share of taxes. We use the rule because, as a general matter, it is probably a good statement of what the Legislature wants us to do. However the rule is merely a presumption; the ultimate inquiry remains legislative intent. When other indications show that the Legislature intended a broad interpretation of a tax exemption, it is not our role to thwart the legislative purpose by mechanically applying traditional rules of construction.
In this case, there is ample evidence that the Legislature intended the property rebate to be liberally construed to include "life-care" residents. As the Tax Court noted, the Legislature has made property tax relief available on a broad scale to comply with the constitutional mandate to use the income tax to grant property tax relief. N.J.Const. (1947), Art. VIII, § 1, paras. 5, 7; 176 N.J. Super. at 278-79. It has also amended the statute several times, progressively broadening the categories of persons benefitted by the rebate. Id. at 280. Moreover, in recent years the Legislature has given special attention to the needs of the State's senior citizens. It has repeatedly granted them special tax benefits. Id. at 279-80. This is a further indication of a legislative desire to include plaintiffs within the scope of the statute.
As a practical matter, plaintiffs have de facto life tenancies. Virtually all make large down payments. The overwhelming majority of residents stay for the remainder of their lives. During the 14-year history of Meadow Lakes, for example, the corporation has attempted to terminate the residency of only two persons out of a total of approximately 900. The small technical differences between life-care ...