Massachusetts v. United States/Dissent Jackson

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Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

333 U.S. 611

Massachusetts  v.  United States

 Argued: Dec. 10, 1947. --- Decided: April 19, 1948

Mr. Justice JACKSON, with whom Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER, Mr. Justice DOUGLAS and Mr. Justice BURTON join, dissenting.

This decision announces an unnecessarily ruthless interpretation of a statute that at its best is an arbitrary one. The statute by which the Federal Government gives its own claims against an insolvent priority over claims in favor of a state government must be applied by courts, not because federal claims are more meritorious or equitable, but only because that Government has more power. But the priority statute is an assertion of federal supremacy as against any contrary state policy. It is not a limitation on the Federal Government itself, not an assertion that the priority policy shall prevail over all other federal policies. Its generalities should not lightly be construed to frustrate a specific policy embodied in a later federal statute.

The Federal Government has sued to enforce a personal liability against one who, as assignee, paid to the State of Massachusetts funds which the Federal Government claims by virtue of its statutory priority. Defendant was the assignee of a small concern under a common-law assignment for benefit of creditors. The assests did not realize enough to pay both federal and state tax claims. The United States filed a claim, among other things, for 100% of the taxes laid by Title 9 of the Social Security Act, which however, provides for a 90% credit against the federal tax if that amount has been paid into an approved state unemployment compensation fund. Believing that he was entitled thereby to pay the State and to claim the credit against the federal tax, this assignee paid $803.72 on the claim of Massachusetts for taxes under the Massachusetts Unemployment Compensation Act. This is the sum now demanded by the Federal Government.

The reasoning on which the assignee is held liable and the State is required to turn this amount over to the Federal Government is this: True § 902 gives a 90% credit. But, literally, it is only for actual payment to the State. On insolvency, the federal priority statute, so it is held, intervenes and freezes the funds in the assignee's hands so that he cannot pay the State until he has first paid the Federal Government. Hence, unless he has enough money to pay both claims in full, the priority statute prevents him from taking the credit which the Social Security Act grants him, the Federal Government collects a windfall ten times what would normally be its due, and the State government gets nothing on its tax claim. This Court now so construes the priority statute as not merely to prefer net claims of the Federal Government, but also as a prohibition against courts marshaling the assets of an insolvent in an equitable manner.

The District Judge declined to support this harsh reasoning. He is one whose views of the meaning of the Social Security Act are entitled to great weight, because of his experience with it. See Steward Mach. Co. v. Davis, 301 U.S. 4 8, at page 553, 57 S.Ct. 883, at page 884, 81 L.Ed. 1279, 109 A.L.R. 1293. He considered that as to 90% of the federal tax, the taxpayer in effect was given an option to pay it to the approved state fund or to the Federal Government. He said (65 F.Supp. 764): 'The force of that analysis seemed to me the more persuasive when the true nature of Title IX of the Social Security Act as portrayed in Steward Machine Co. v. Davis, 301 U.S. 548, 57 S.Ct. 883, 81 L.Ed. 1279, 109 A.L.R. 1293, was stressed. As to 90 per cent of the taxes under that title the objective of Congress was not to collect federal revenues but to stimulate the creation of and payment to state unemployment compensation funds. It would defeat obvious Congressional intent to lay down a rule which required that this 90 per cent should go to satisfy a Title IX tax claim instead of going to the direct benefit of claimants under state unemployment compensation plans.'

The consequences of this Court's refusal to follow his reasoning are so inconsistent with the purposes of the Social Security Act that they could not have been intended by a reasonable Congress. What the Court is doing practically is this:

1. The Court is giving the Federal Treasury a payment from an insolvent taxpayer ten times as large as Congress exacted from a solvent taxpayer under like circumstances. The 90% was never contemplated as federal revenue, but credit for that amount was intended to be availed of, to induce states to create unemployment compensation funds and to maintain them in solvent condition.

2. The Court is depriving the State of a revenue Congress not only tried to assure it, but one which it used the tax and credit device to impel the state to collect. See Steward Machine Co. v. Davis, 301 U.S. 548, 57 S.Ct. 883, 81 L.Ed. 1279, 109 A.L.R. 1293.

3. This unjust enrichment of the Federal Government and the depletion of state unemployment funds is accomplished by holding that the priority statute prohibits simultaneous distribution to each, State and Federal Government, of the net amount actually due, taking into account such simultaneous payments, and by requiring instead that the total federal tax be paid in full and first in point of time, which in this case depletes the estate so that the assignee cannot thereafter make the state payment to obtain the federal credit. It seems to me that the federal priority statute cannot have been intended to do more than secure to the Federal Government what becomes fairly due it on a marshaling of assets as courts of equity usually do.

4. This interpretation prejudices general creditors by placing ahead of them $190 of tax claims for every $100 actually owing. For example, the maximum tax for both the State and Federal Governments is that laid by the Federal Act-let us say it amounts to $1,000. It can be discharged by payment of $1,000, $900 paid to the approved state fund and $100 to the Federal Government. But under this ruling the insolvent must pay the $1,000 in full to the Federal Government. That, of course, leaves the state tax undischarged, which calls for payment of another $900 before anything can be left for the general creditors. Thus, where an equitable marshaling of assets to pay just claims would put $1,000 of taxes ahead of general creditors, the Court's ruling puts $1,900 ahead of general creditors. The Court even goes so far as to reject concessions by the Government designed to mitigate, in this respect at least, the harshness of this rule.

The interpretation of the Priority Act to thus gouge the states and private creditors is contrary to the purpose and spirit of the Act itself. Over a century ago Mr. Justice Story defined the 'motives of public policy' which underlie the priority statutes of the Federal Government to be 'in order to secure an adequate revenue to sustain the public burthens and discharge the public debts. * * *' United States v. State Bank of North Carolina, 1832, 6 Pet. 29, 35, 8 L.Ed. 308. It is obvious that a to the 90% of the Social Security tax here involved, it was not contemplated as federal revenue to meet federal burdens but was laid to induce and to enable the State to assume specific obligations to the unemployed. The priority statute is now invoked to deny, in this class of cases, the aid promised in meeting these obligations.

When a later statute has enacted a comprehensive federal policy in another field and created a federal interest in the adverse claimant's solvency or function, this Court has rarely, and never until recently, hesitated to interpret the old and general priority statute as yielding to the newer and specific statutory scheme. Cook County National Bank v. United States, 107 U.S. 445, 2 S.Ct. 561, 27 L.Ed. 537; United States v. Guaranty Trust Co. of New York, 280 U.S. 478, 50 S.Ct. 212, 74 L.Ed. 556; cf. Callahan v. United States, 285 U.S. 515, 52 S.Ct. 454, 76 L.Ed. 914. See also dissent in United States v. Emory, 314 U.S. 423 at page 433, 62 S.Ct. 317, at page 322, 86 L.Ed. 315. The problem here is not whether a mere state claim can defeat one of the Federal Government, but whether one federal statute will be so construed as to defeat the manifest policy of another.

The Court's opinion, however, goes to some lengths to show that the Court as a whole and without dissent on this point has become committed to the interpretation it adopts, and by unusual deference to the doctrine of stare decisis declares itself bound hand and foot to full federal priority. I am unable to detect the commitment which the Court so clearly sees. But if I have agreed to any prior decision which forecloses what now seems to be a sensible construction of this Act, I must frankly admit that I was unaware of it. However, no rights have vested no prejudicial action has been taken in reliance upon such a ruling. It does not appear to have been called to the attention of Congress and in effect approved by failure to act. Under these circumstances, except for any personal humiliation involved in admitting that I do not always understand the opinions of this Court, I see no reason why I should be consciously wrong today because I was unconsciously wrong yesterday.

I would reverse the judgment and allow federal priority only subject to the 90% credit for sums disbursed to the State on account of its unemployment compensation tax.


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).