Braniff Airways v. Nebraska State Board of Equalization and Assessment/Dissent Frankfurter

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United States Supreme Court

347 U.S. 590

Braniff Airways  v.  Nebraska State Board of Equalization and Assessment

 Argued: March 12, 1954. --- Decided: June 1, 1954

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER, dissenting.

One of the most treacherous tendencies in legal reasoning is the transfer of generalizations developed for one set of situations to seemingly analogous, yet essentially very different, situations. The doctrines evolved in adjusting rights as between the States to tax property bearing some relation to a number of States, and the taxing power of the States as against the freedom from State interferences secured by the Commerce Clause, bear, of course, a practical relation to what it is that is taxed. It took a considerable time to make this adjustment in regard to taxation of railroad property and railroad income-to decide when the States are wholly excluded from levying certain taxes, when an ad valorem tax may be levied on railroad property reasonably deemed to be permanently in a given State, and on what basis income from interstate railroad business may fairly be apportioned among different States. Even as to railroads, nice distinctions had to be made and the making of them has not been concluded.

It stands to reason that the drastic differences between slow-moving trains and the bird-like flight of airplanes would be reflected in the law's response to the claims of the different States and the limitations of the Commerce Clause upon those claims. The differences in result and the conflict even among those who agreed in result in Northwest Airlines v. State of Minnesota, 322 U.S. 292, 64 S.Ct. 950, 88 L.Ed. 1283, demonstrate not the contrariness or caprice of different minds but the inherent perplexities of the law's adjustment to such novel problems as the exercise of the taxing power over commercial aviation in a federal system. The problems canvassed in that case were unprecedented, and perhaps the most important thing that was there decided was the refusal of the Court to apply to air transportation the doctrines that had been enunciated with regard to land and water transportation.

The plain intimation of the case-that these novel problems, affecting the taxing power of the States and the Nation, call for the comprehensive powers of legislation possessed by Congress found response in a resolution of Congress directing the Civil Aeronautics Board to develop the 'means for eliminating and avoiding, as far as practicable, multiple taxation of persons engaged in air commerce * * * which has the effect of unduly burdening or unduly impeding the development of air commerce.' 58 Stat. 723, 49 U.S.C.A. § 425 note. The inquiry thus set afoot produced an illuminating report. See H.R.Doc.No.141, 79th Cong., 1st Sess., which analyzed the difficulties and also made concrete proposals. [1] The gist of these proposals was that Congress makd an apportionment of taxes among the States over which air carriers fly, based upon relevant factors and in appropriate ratios. The basis of taxation by Nebraska, here under review, substantially reflects the factors which the Civil Aeronautics Board recommended to the Congress. It is one thing, however, for the individual States to determine what factors should be taken into account and how they should be weighted. It is quite another for Congress to devise, as the Civil Aeronautics Board recommended it should, a scheme of apportionment binding on all the States. Until that time, Nebraska may rely on one scheme of apportionment; other States on other schemes. And each State may, from time to time, modify the relevant factors. [2]

The exercise of the taxing power by one of the States by means of a formula, based on such criteria as tonnage, revenue, and arrivals and departures, may, in isolation, impose no unfair burden on commerce. And the adoption by all the States of such a basis for taxation, which only congressional action could ensure, would not offend the Commerce Clause. It is the diverse and fluctuating exercise of power by the various States, even where based on concededly relevant factors, which imposes an undue burden on interstate commerce. [3]

The complexity of the proposals of the Board's Report-the items to be taken into account, the balance to be struck among them, the problem of giving the States their due without unfairly burdening an industry of vital national import-indicates how ill-adapted the judicial process is, as against the choices open to Congress, for dealing with these problems and how warily this Court should move within the limits of its own inescapable duty to act. The protection of interstate commerce against the burden of multiple taxation ought not to be left to litigation growing out of changes in the methods of taxation.

'The immunities implicit in the Commerce Clause and the potential taxing power of a State can hardly be made to depend, in the world of practical affairs, on the shifting incidence of the varying tax laws of the various States at a particular moment. Courts are not possessed of instruments of determination so delicate as to enable them to weigh the various factors in a complicated economic setting which, as to an isolated application of a State tax, might mitigate the obvious burden generally created by a direct tax on commerce.' Freeman v. Hewit, 329 U.S. 249, 256, 67 S.Ct. 274, 278, 91 L.Ed. 265.

This would not be the only instance in which a constructive adjustment of competing considerations requires congressional legislation and is beyond the scope of the judicial process. See Davis v. Department of Labor, 317 U.S. 249, 259, 63 S.Ct. 225, 230, 87 L.Ed. 246; Halcyon Lines v. Haenn Ship Ceiling & Refitting Corp., 342 U.S. 282, 72 S.Ct. 277, 96 L.Ed. 318; United States v. Stanard Oil Co., 332 U.S. 301, 67 S.Ct. 1604, 91 L.Ed. 2067; United States v. Gilman, 347 U.S. 507, 74 S.Ct. 695.

It was not too difficult in Northwest Airlines to allow Minnesota to levy a personal property tax on the entire fleet of airplanes owned by a corporation of its creation, the principal place of business of which was also Minnesota. The State of Minnesota, as we said, was the only State that had such a hold on the planes. In the case before us, Nebraska has no such relation with the airplanes on which it seeks to impose an ad valorem tax.

This Court has held that a State may levy an ad valorem tax on the basis of a showing that the total time spent in a State by different units of a carrier's property is such that a certain proportion of that property may be said to have a permanent location in that State. Such a doctrine of apportionment, as the basis of property taxation, was adopted by this Court in Pullman's Palace Car Co. v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 141 U.S. 18, 11 S.Ct. 876, 35 L.Ed. 613, with relation to railroad cars; and in Ott v. Mississippi Valley Barge Line Co., 336 U.S. 169, 69 S.Ct. 432, 93 L.Ed. 585, with relation to barges. But boats and railroad cars which spend hours and days at a time in a State have a closeness and duration of relationship to that State obviously not true of planes which make brief stopovers for a few minutes.

The appealing phrase that 'interstate business must pay its way' can be invoked only when we know what the 'way' is for which business commerce must pay. Of course, the appellant must pay for the use of airports and other services it enjoys in Nebraska. It must pay a tax on all its property permanently located in Nebraska. Like everyone else it must pay a gasoline tax. In fact it pays approximately $22,000 a year for the use of the airport, $14,000 a year in gasoline taxes, and appropriate property taxes on office equipment, trucks and other items permanently in Nebraska.

But only those who have a sufficiently substantial relation to Nebraska that they may fairly be said to partake of the benefits, though impalpable and unspecific, it gives as an ordered society, may be taxed because they partake of those benefits. And even then, of course, an undue burden must not be cast on commerce. Not unless Nebraska can show that appellant has airplanes that have a substantially permanent presence in Nebraska can Nebraska exert its taxing power on their presence. I do not believe that planes which pause for a few moments can be made the basis for the exercise of such power. [4] If Nebraska can tax without such a tie, every other State through which the planes fly or in which they alight for a few minutes can tax. Surely this is an obvious inroad upon the Commerce Clause and as such barred by the Constitution.

It cannot be said that for airplanes, flying regularly scheduled flights, to alight, stop over for a short time and then take off is so tenuously related to Nebraska that it would deny due process for that State to seize on these short stopovers as the basis of an ad valorem tax. But the incidence of a tax may offend the Commerce Clause, even though it may satisfy the Due Process Clause.

I am not unaware that there is an air of imprecision about what I have written. Such is the intention. Until Congress acts, the vital thing for the Court in this new and subtle field is to focus on the process of interstate commerce and protect it from inroads of taxation by a State beyond 'opportunities which it has given, * * * protection which it has afforded, * * * benefits which it has conferred by the fact of being an orderly, civilized society.' Wisconsin v. J. C. Penney Co., 311 U.S. 435, 444, 61 S.Ct. 246, 250, 85 L.Ed. 267.


^1  The proposal of this Report-that there be a uniform allocation formula to apportion taxes among the States-was adopted by the Council of State Governments. See 20 State Government 95. However no federal legislation has yet resulted.

^2  In addition to the problem of conflict between apportionment schemes of various States, it must be borne in mind that these schemes cannot be regarded as abstract mathematical formulas, and hence they must be closely scrutinized to ensure their fairness as applied to a given situation. See Wallace v. Hines, 253 U.S. 66, 40 S.Ct. 435, 64 L.Ed. 782.

^3  Lest it be thought one formula of apportionment is clearly the appropriate one, it should be noted that the Board's Report sets forth three formulas proposed by responsible groups, in addition to that recommended by the Board. And while Nebraska adopted the factors recommended by the Board, it did not give them the same weight which the Board's proposed formula did. See H.R.Doc.No.141, 79th Cong., 1st Sess. 58.

^4  With the exception of one plane which remains in Nebraska overnight, all of the Company's planes remain in Nebraska for periods of between five and twenty minutes each day. Considering this brief time spent on the ground by planes which stop in transit, more than a bare assertion that flight equipment is 'permanently' in Nebraska is called for to establish the requisite permanence for taxing purposes.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).