The Substantive Canons of Tax Law

73 Pages Posted: 17 Jun 2019 Last revised: 3 Dec 2019

Date Written: June 7, 2019


Anti-abuse doctrines in tax law have traditionally been formulated as multi-factor tests that weigh the facts of the taxpayer’s case but ignore the tax statute at issue. This approach has proven problematic: some judges import statutory considerations regardless, creating inconsistency and confusion, and some scholars criticize the doctrines as antitextual judicial inventions. These challenges undermine important barriers against abusive tax schemes.

This Article argues that anti-abuse doctrines should be considered substantive canons of construction, presumptions that can be rebutted by statutory text or purpose. Doing so would resolve apparent arbitrariness in the doctrines’ application as simply the rebuttal of presumptions and reconcile the substantive canons to textualists as constitutionally permissible background norms. It would also provide a framework to test the validity of disputed doctrines and allow them to be more flexible and intuitive.

Although many scholars have studied substantive canons and anti-abuse doctrines separately, this Article connects the two. It also catalogs the substantive tax canons based on existing case law, serving as a resource for future academics, practitioners, and judges.

Keywords: Taxation, Federal Income Taxation, Statutory Interpretation, Legislation

Suggested Citation

Choi, Jonathan H., The Substantive Canons of Tax Law (June 7, 2019). 72 Stanford Law Review (Forthcoming). Available at SSRN:

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