State Of New York v. United States/Dissent Douglas

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

326 U.S. 572


 Argued: Dec. 4, 1945. --- Decided: Jan 14, 1946

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, with whom Mr. Justice BLACK concurs, dissenting.

If State of South Carolina v. United States, 199 U.S. 437, 26 S.Ct. 110, 50 L.Ed. 261, 4 Ann.Cas. 737, is to stand, the present judgment would have to be affirmed. For I agree that there is no essential difference between a federal tax on South Carolina's liquor business and a federal tax on New York's mineral water business. Whether State of South Carolina v. United States reaches the right result is another matter.

Mr. Justice Brandeis stated that 'Stare decisis is usually the wise policy, because in most matters it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that it be settled right.' Burnet v. Coronado Oil & Gas Co., 285 U.S. 393, 406, 52 S.Ct. 443, 447, 76 L.Ed. 815. But throughout the history of the Court stare decisis has had only a limited application in the field of constitutional law. And it is a wise policy which largely restricts it to those areas of the law where correction can be had by legislation. Otherwise the Constitution loses the flexibility necessary if it is to serve the needs of successive generations.

I do not believe State of South Carolina v. United States states the correct rule. A State's project is as much a legitimate governmental activity whether it is traditional, or akin to private enterprise, or conducted for profit. Cf. Helvering v. Gerhardt, 304 U.S. 405, 426, 427, 58 S.Ct. 969, 978, 979, 82 L.Ed. 1427. A State may deem it as essential to its economy that it own and operate a railroad, a mill, or an irrigation system as it does to own and operate bridges, street lights, or a sewage disposal plant. What might have been viewed in an earlier day as an improvident or even dangerous extension of state activities may today be deemed indispensable. But as Mr. Justice White said in his dissent in State of South Carolina v. United States, any activity in which a State engages within the limits of its police power is a legitimate governmental activity. Here a State is disposing of some of its natural resources. Tomorrow it may issue securities, sell power from its public power project, or manufacture fertilizer. Each is an exercise of its power of sovereignty. Must it pay the federal government for the privilege of exercising that inherent power? If the Constitution grants it immunity from a tax on the issuance of securities, on what grounds can it be forced to pay a tax when it sells power or disposes of other natural resources?

One view, just announced, purports to reject the distinction which State of South Carolina v. United States drew between those activities of a State which are and those which are not strictly governmental, usual, or traditional. But it is said that a federal tax on a State will be sustained so long as Congress 'does not attempt to tax a State because it is a State.' Yet if that mean that a federal real estate tax of general application (apportioned) would be valid if applied to a power dam owned by a state but invalid if applied to a statehouse, the old doctrine has merely been poured into a new container. If, on the other hand, any federal tax on any state activity were sustained unless it discriminated against the State, then a constitutional rule would be fashioned which would undermine the sovereignty of the States as it has been understood throughout our history. Any such change should be accomplished only by constitutional amendment. The doctrine of state immunity is too intricately involved in projects which have been launched to be whittled down by judicial fiat.

Woodrow Wilson stated the starting point for me when he said [1] that 'the States of course possess every power that government has ever anywhere exercised, except only those powers which their own constitutions or the Constitution of the United States explicitly or by plain inference withhold. They are the ordinary governments of the country; the federal government is its instrument only for particular purposes.' The Supremacy Clause, Article VI, clause 2, applies to federal laws within the powers delegated to Congress by the States. But it is antagonistic to the very implications of our federal system to say that the power of Congress to lay and collect taxes, Article I, § 8, includes the power to tax any state activity or function so long as the tax does not discriminate against the States. [2] As stated in United States v. Railroad Co., 17 Wall. 322, 327, 328, 21 L.Ed. 597: 'The right of the States to administer their own affairs through their legislative, executive, and judicial departments, in their own manner through their own agencies, is conceded by the uniform decisions of this court and by the practice of the Federal government from its organization. This carries with it an exemption of those agencies and instruments, from the taxing power of the Federal government. If they may be taxed lightly, they may be taxed heavily; if justly, oppressively. Their operation may be impeded and may be destroyed, if any interference is permitted.'

Can it be that a general federal tax on the issuance of securities would be constitutional if applied to the issuance of municipal securities or of state bonds or of the securities of public utility districts organized by the States? Could the States be classified with farmers, business men, industrial workers, judges and other ordinary citizens and required to pay an income tax to the federal government? It is said that a federal income tax on the tax revenues of a State would not be sustained because such a tax would interfere with a sovereign function of the State. But can it be that a federal income tax on state revenues derived not from taxes but from the sale of mineral water, liquor, lumber and the like, would be sustained?

A tax is a powerful, regulatory instrument. Local government in this free land does not exist for itself. The fact that local government may enter the domain of private enterprise and operate a project for profit does not put it in the class of private business enterprise for tax purposes. Local government exists to provide for the welfare of its peop e, not for a limited group of stockholders. If the federal government can place the local governments on its tax collector's list, their capacity to serve the needs of their citizens is at once hampered or curtailed. The field of federal excise taxation alone is practically without limits. Many state activities are in marginal enterprises where private capital refuses to venture. Add to the cost of these projects a federal tax and the social program may be destroyed before it can be launched. In any case, the repercussions of such a fundamental change on the credit of the States and on their programs to take care of the needy and to build for the future would be considerable. To say the present tax will be sustained because it does not impair the State's functions of government is to conclude either that the sale by the State of its mineral water is not a function of government or that the present tax is so slight as to be no burden. The former obviously is not true. The latter overlooks the fact that the power to tax lightly is the power to tax severely. The power to tax is indeed one of the most effective forms of regulation. And no more powerful instrument for centralization of government could be devised. For with the federal government immune and the States subject to tax, the economic ability of the federal government to expand its activities at the expense of the States is at once apparent. That is the result whether the rule of State of South Carolina v. United States be perpetuated or a new rule of discrimination be adopted.

The notion that the sovereign position of the States must find its protection in the will of a transient majority of Congress is foreign to and a negation of our constitutional system. There will often be vital regional interests represented by no majority in Congress. The Constitution was designed to keep the balance between the States and the nation outside the field of legislative controversy.

The immunity of the States from federal taxation is no less clear because it is implied. The States on entering the Union surrendered some of their sovereignty. It was further curtailed as various Amendments were adopted. But the Tenth Amendment provides that 'The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.' The Constitution is a compact between sovereigns. The power of one sovereign to tax another is an innovation so startling as to require explicit authority if it is to be allowed. If the power of the federal government to tax the States is conceded, the reserved power of the States guaranteed by the Tenth Amendment does not give them the independence which they have always been assumed to have. They are relegated to a more servile status. They become subject to interference and control both in the functions which they exercise and the methods which they employ. They must pay the federal government for the privilege of exercising the powers of sovereignty guaranteed them by the Constitution, [3] whether, as here, they are disposing of their natural resources, or tomorrow they issue securities or perform any other acts within the scope of their police power.

Of course, the levying of the present tax does not curtail the business of the state government more than it does the like business of the citizen. But the same might be true in the case of many state activities which have long been assumed to be immune from federal taxation. When a municipality acquires a water system or an electric power plant and transmission facilities, it withdraws projects from the field of private enterprise. Is the tax immunity to be denied because a tax on the municipality would not curtail the municipality more than it would the prior private owner? Is the municipality to be taxed whenever it engages in an activity which once was in the field of private enterprise and therefore was once taxable? Every expansion of state activity since the adoption of the Constitution limits the reach of federal taxation if state immunity is recognized. Yet none would concede that the sovereign powers of the States were limited to those which they exercised in 1787. Nor can it be said that if the present tax is not sustained there will be withdrawn from the taxing power of the federal government a subject of taxation which has been traditionally within that power from the beginning. Not until State of South Carolina v. United States was it held that so-called business activities of a State were subject to federal taxation. That was after the turn of the present century. Thus the major objection to the suggested test is that it disregards the Tenth Amendment, places the sovereign States on the same plane as private citizens, and makes the sovereign States pay the federal government for the privilege of exercising the powers of sovereignty guaranteed them by the Constitution.

That this idea is hostile to the view of the Framers of the Constitution is evident from Hamilton's discussion of he taxing power of the federal government in The Federalist, Nos. 30-36 (Sesquicentennial Ed. 1937) pp. 183-224. He repeatedly stated that the taxing powers of the States and of the federal government were to be 'concurrent'-'the only admissible substitute for an entire subordination, in respect to this branch of power, of the State authority to that of the Union.' Pp. 202, 203. He also stated, 'The convention thought the concurrent jurisdiction preferable to that subordination; and it is evident that it has at least the merit of reconciling an indefinite constitutional power of taxation in the Federal government with an adequate and independent power in the States to provide for their own necessities.' P. 209. On such assurances could it possibly be thought that the States were so subordinate that their activities could be taxed by the federal government?

In McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 4 L.Ed. 579, the Court held unconstitutional a state tax on notes of the Bank of the United States. The statement of Chief Justice Marshall (4 Wheat. at pages 429, 430, 4 L.Ed. 579) is adequate to sustain the case for the reciprocal immunity of the state and federal governments:

'If we measure the power of taxation residing in a State, by the extent of sovereignty which the people of a single State possess, and can confer on its government, we have an intelligible standard, applicable to every case to which the power may be applied. We have a principle which leaves the power of taxing the people and property of a State unimpaired; which leaves to a State the command of all its resources, and which places beyond its reach, all those powers which are conferred by the people of the United States on the government of the Union, and all those means which are given for the purpose of carrying those powers into execution. We have a principle which is safe for the States, and safe for the Union. We are relieved, as we ought to be, from lashing sovereignty; from interfering powers; from a repugnancy between a right in one government to pull down what there is an acknowledged right in another to build up; from the incompatibility of a right in one government to destroy what there is a right in another to preserve. We are not driven to the perplexing inquiry, so unfit for the judicial department, what degree of taxation is the legitimate use, and what degree may amount to the abuse of the power.'

Those who agreed with State of South Carolina v. United States had the fear that an expanding program of state activity would dry up sources of federal revenues and thus cripple the national government. 199 U.S. at pages 454, 455, 26 S.Ct. at pages 113, 114, 50 L.Ed. 261, 4 Ann.Cas. 737. That was in 1905. [4] That fear is expressed again today when we have the federal income tax, from which employees of the States may not claim exemption on constitutional grounds. Helvering v. Gerhardt, supra. The fear of depriving the national government of revenue if the tax immunity of the States is sustained has no more place in the present decision than the spectre of socialism, the fear of which, said Holmes 'was translated into doctrines that had no proper place in the Constitution or the common law.' [5]

There is no showing whatsoever that an expanding field of state activity even faintly promises to cripple the federal government in its search for needed revenues. If the truth were known, I suspect it would show that the activity of the States in the fields of housing, public power and the like have increased the level of income of the people and have raised the standards of martinal or sub-marginal groups. Such conditions affect favorably, not adversely, the tax potential of the federal government.


^1  Constitutional Government in the United States (1908), pp. 183, 184.

^2  As stated in United States v. State of California, 297 U.S. 175, 184, 185, 56 S.Ct. 421, 424, 425, 80 L.Ed. 567, the immunity of state instrumentalities from federal taxation 'is implied from the nature of our federal system and the relationship within it of state and national governments, and is equally a restriction on taxation by either of the instrumentalities of the other.' It went on to say in justification of making state activities subject to the exercise by Congress of the commerce power, 'But there is no such limitation upon the plenary power to regulate commerce. The state can no more deny the power if its exercise has been authorized by Congress than can an individual.'

^3  That fact distinguishes those cases where a citizen seeks tax immunity because his income was derived from a State or the federal government. Recognition of such a claim would create a 'privileged class of taxpayers' (Helvering v. Gerhardt, supra, 304 U.S. at page 416, 58 S.Ct. at page 973, 82 L.Ed. 1427) and extend the tax immunity of the States or the federal government to private citizens. It was in protest to the recognition of such a derivative immunity that Mr. Justice Bradley dissented in Collector v. Day, 11 Wall. 113, 128, 20 L.Ed. 122, where the Court held unconstitutional a federal tax on the salary of a judicial officer of a State. As Mr. Justice Bradley stated, 'No man ceases to be a citizen of the United States by being an officer under the State government.' 11 Wall. t page 128, 20 L.Ed. 122. And see Graves v. People of State of New York ex rel. O'Keefe, 306 U.S. 466, 59 S.Ct. 595, 83 L.Ed. 927, 120 A.L.R. 1466, holding that salaries of federal employees may be constitutionally included in a non-discriminatory state income tax.

^4  As the Solicitor General of New York points out, in the year when South Carolina v. United States was decided over one-fourth of the entire annual income of the federal government was derived from taxes on spirits and fermented liquors. See Annual Report, Secretary of the Treasury (1905), pp. 7, 26.

^5  Holmes, Collected Legal Papers (1921) p. 295.

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).