United States v. Butler (297 U.S. 1)/Dissent Stone

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

297 U.S. 1


 Argued: Dec. 9, 10, 1935. --- Decided: Jan 6, 1936

Mr. Justice STONE (dissenting).

I think the judgment should be reversed.

The present stress of widely held and strongly expressed differences of opinion of the wisdom of the Agricultural Adjustment Act makes it important, in the interest of clear thinking and sound result, to emphasize at the outset certain propositions which should have controlling influence in determining the validity of the act. They are:

1. The power of courts to declare a statute unconstitutional is subject to two guiding principles of decision which ought never to be absent from judicial consciousness. One is that courts are concerned only with the power to enact statutes, not with their wisdom. The other is that while unconstitutional exercise of power by the executive and legislative branches of the government is subject to judicial restraint, the only check upon our own exercise of power is our own sense of self-restraint. For the removal of unwise laws from the statute books appeal lies, not to the courts, but to the ballot and to the processes of democratic government.

2. The constitutional power of Congress to levy an excise tax upon the processing of agricultural products is not questioned. The present levy is held invalid, not for any want of power in Congress to lay such a tax to defray public expenditures, including those for the general welfare, but because the use to which its proceeds are put is disapproved.

3. As the present depressed state of agriculture is nation wide in its extent and effects, there is no basis for saying that the expenditure of public money in aid of farmers is not within the specifically granted power of Congress to levy taxes to 'provide for the * * * general welfare.' The opinion of the Court does not declare otherwise.

4. No question of a variable tax fixed from time to time by fiat of the Secretary of Agriculture, or of unauthorized delegation of legislative power, is now presented. The schedule of rates imposed by the secretary in accordance with the original command of Congress has since been specifically adopted and confirmed by act of Congress, which has declared that it shall be the lawful tax. Act of August 24, 1935, 49 Stat. 750, 7 U.S.C.A. § 602 et seq. That is the tax which the government now seeks to collect. Any defects there may have been in the manner of laying the tax by the secretary have now been removed by the exercise of the power of Congress to pass a curative statute validating an intended, though defective, tax. United States v. Heinszen & Co., 206 U.S. 370, 27 S.Ct. 742, 51 L.Ed. 1098, 11 Ann.Cas. 688; Graham & Foster v. Goodcell, 282 U.S. 409, 51 S.Ct. 186, 75 L.Ed. 415; cf. Milliken v. United States, 283 U.S. 15, 51 S.Ct. 324, 75 L.Ed. 809. The Agricultural Adjustment Act as thus amended declares that none of its provisions shall fail because others are pronounced invalid.

It is with these preliminary and hardly controverted matters in mind that we should direct our attention to the pivot on which the decision of the Court is made to turn. It is that a levy unquestionably with n the taxing power of Congress may be treated as invalid because it is a step in a plan to regulate agricultural production and is thus a forbidden infringement of state power. The levy is not any the less an exercise of taxing power because it is intended to defray an expenditure for the general welfare rather than for some other support of government. Nor is the levy and collection of the tax pointed to as effecting the regulation. While all federal taxes inevitably have some influence on the internal economy of the states, it is not contended that the levy of a processing tax upon manufacturers using agricultural products as raw material has any perceptible regulatory effect upon either their production or manufacture. The tax is unlike the penalties which were held invalid in the Child Labor Tax Case, 259 U.S. 20, 42 S.Ct. 449, 66 L.Ed. 817, 21 A.L.R. 1432, in Hill v. Wallace, 259 U.S. 44, 42 S.Ct. 453, 66 L.Ed. 822, in Linder v. United States, 268 U.S. 5, 17, 45 S.Ct. 446, 69 L.Ed. 819, 39 A.L.R. 229, and in United States v. Constantine, 296 U.S. 287, 56 S.Ct. 223, 80 L.Ed. 233, because they were themselves the instruments of regulation by virtue of their coercive effect on matters left to the control of the states. Here regulation, if any there be, is accomplished not by the tax, but by the method by which its proceeds are expended, and would equally be accomplished by any like use of public funds, regardless of their source.

The method may be simply stated. Out of the available fund payments are made to such farmers as are willing to curtail their productive acreage, who in fact do so and who in advance have filed their written undertaking to do so with the Secretary of Agriculture. In saying that this method of spending public moneys is an invasion of the reserved powers of the states, the Court does not assert that the expenditure of public funds to promote the general welfare is not a substantive power specifically delegated to the national government, as Hamilton and Story pronounced it to be. It does not deny that the expenditure of funds for the benefit of farmers and in aid of a program of curtailment of production of agricultural products, and thus of a supposedly better ordered national economy, is within the specifically granted power. But it is declared that state power is nevertheless infringed by the expenditure of the proceeds of the tax to compensate farmers for the curtailment of their cotton acreage. Although the farmer is placed under no legal compulsion to reduce acreage, it is said that the mere offer of compensation for so doing is a species of economic coercion which operates with the same legal force and effect as though the curtailment were made mandatory by act of Congress. In any event it is insisted that even though not coercive the expenditure of public funds to induce the recipients to curtail production is itself an infringement of state power, since the federal government cannot invade the domain of the states by the 'purchase' of performance of acts which it has no power to compel.

Of the assertion that the payments to farmers are coercive, it is enough to say that no such contention is pressed by the taxpayer, and no such consequences were to be anticipated or appear to have resulted from the administration of the act. The suggestion of coercion finds no support in the record or in any data showing the actual operation of the act. Threat of loss, not hope of gain, is the essence of economic coercion. Members of a long-depressed industry have undoubtedly been tempted to curtail acreage by the hope of resulting better prices and by the proffered opportunity to obtain needed ready money. But there is nothing to indicate that those who accepted benefits were impelled by fear of lower prices if they did not accept, or that at any stage in the operation of the plan a farmer could say whether, apart from the certainty of cash payments at specified times, the advantage would lie with curtailment of production plus c mpensation, rather than with the same or increased acreage plus the expected rise in prices which actually occurred. Although the Agricultural Adjustment Act was put into operation in June, 1933, the official reports of the Department of Agriculture show that 6,343,000 acres of productive cotton land, 14 per cent. of the total, did not participate in the plan in 1934, and 2,790,000 acres, 6 per cent. of the total, did not participate in 1935. Of the total number of farms growing cotton, estimated at 1,500,000, 33 per cent. in 1934 and 13 per cent. in 1935 did not participate.

It is significant that in the congressional hearings on the bill that became the Bankhead Act, 48 Stat. 598, 7 U.S.C.A. § 701 et seq., as amended by Act of June 20, 1934, 48 Stat. 1184, 7 U.S.C.A. § 725, which imposes a tax of 50 per cent. on all cotton produced in excess of limits prescribed by the Secretary of Agriculture, there was abundant testimony that the restriction of cotton production attempted by the Agricultural Adjustment Act could not be secured without the coercive provisions of the Bankhead Act. See Hearing before Committee on Agriculture, U.S. Senate, on S. 1974, 73d Cong., 2d Sess.; Hearing before Committee on Agriculture, U.S. House of Representatives, on H.R. 8402, 73d Cong., 2d Sess. The Senate and House Committees so reported, Senate Report No. 283, 73d Cong., 2d Sess., p. 3; House Report No. 867, 73d Cong., 2d Sess., p. 3. The Report of the Department of Agriculture on the administration of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (February 15, 1934 to December 31, 1934), p. 50, points out that the Bankhead Act was passed in response to a strong sentiment in favor of mandatory production control 'that would prevent non-cooperating farmers from increasing their own plantings in order to capitalize upon the price advances that had resulted from the reductions made by contract signers.' [1] The presumption of constitutionality of a statute is not to be overturned by an assertion of its coercive effect which rests on nothing more substantial than groundless speculation.

It is upon the contention that state power is infringed by purchased regulation of agricultural production that chief reliance is placed. It is insisted that, while the Constitution gives to Congress, in specific and unambiguous terms, the power to tax and spend, the power is subject to limitations which do not find their origin in any express provision of the Constitution and to which other expressly delegated powers are not subject.

The Constitution requires that public funds shall be spent for a defined purpose, the promotion of the general welfare. Their expenditure usually involves payment on terms which will insure use by the selected recipients within the limits of the constitutional purpose. Expenditures would fail of their purpose and thus lose their constitutional sanction if the terms of payment were not such that by their influence on the action of the recipients the permitted end would be attained. The power of Congress to spend is inseparable from persuasion to action over which Congress has no legislative control. Congress may not command that the science of agriculture be taught in state universities. But if it would aid the teaching of that science by grants to state institutions, it is appropriate, if not necessary, that the grant be on the condition, incorporated in the Morrill Act, 12 Stat. 503, 7 U.S.C.A. § 301 et seq., 26 Stat. 417, 7 U.S.C.A. § 321 et seq., that it be used for the intended purpose. Similarly it would seem to be compliance with the Constitution, not violation of it, for the government to take and the university to give a contract that the grant would be so used. It makes no difference that there is a promise to do an act which the condition is calculated to induce. Co dition and promise are alike valid since both are in furtherance of the national purpose for which the money is appropriated.

These effects upon individual action, which are but incidents of the authorized expenditure of government money, are pronounced to be themselves a limitation upon the granted power, and so the time-honored principle of constitutional interpretation that the granted power includes all those which are incident to it is reversed. 'Let the end be legitimate,' said the great Chief Justice, 'let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional.' McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 421, 4 L.Ed. 579. This cardinal guide to constitutional exposition must now be rephrased so far as the spending power of the federal government is concerned. Let the expenditure be to promote the general welfare, still if it is needful in order to insure its use for the intended purpose to influence any action which Congress cannot command because within the sphere of state government, the expenditure is unconstitutional. And taxes otherwise lawfully levied are likewise unconstitutional if they are appropriated to the expenditure whose incident is condemned.

Congress through the Interstate Commerce Commission has set aside intrastate railroad rates. It has made and destroyed intrastate industries by raising or lowering tariffs. These results are said to be permissible because they are incidents of the commerce power and the power to levy duties on imports. See Minnesota Rate Case 1913, 230 U.S. 352, 33 S.Ct. 729, 57 L.Ed. 1511, 48 L.R.A. (N.S.) 1151, Ann.Cas. 1916A, 18; Houston, E. & W.T.R. Co. v. U.S. (Shreveport Rate Case), 234 U.S. 342, 34 S.Ct. 833, 58 L.Ed. 1341; Board of Trustees of University of Illinois v. United States, 289 U.S. 48, 53 S.Ct. 509, 77 L.Ed. 1025. The only conclusion to be drawn is that results become lawful when they are incidents of those powers but unlawful when incident to the similarly granted power to tax and spend.

Such a limitation is contradictory and destructive of the power to appropriate for the public welfare, and is incapable of practical application. The spending power of Congress is in addition to the legislative power and not subordinate to it. This independent grant of the power of the purse, and its very nature, involving in its exercise the duty to insure expenditure within the granted power, presuppose freedom of selection among divers ends and aims, and the capacity to impose such conditions as will render the choice effective. It is a contradiction in terms to say that there is power to spend for the national welfare, while rejecting any power to impose conditions reasonably adapted to the attainment of the end which alone would justify the expenditure.

The limitation now sanctioned must lead to absurd consequences. The government may give seeds to farmers, but may not condition the gift upon their being planted in places where they are most needed or even planted at all. The government may give money to the unemployed, but may not ask that those who get it shall give labor in return, or even use it to support their families. It may give money to sufferers from earthquake, fire, tornado, pestilence, or flood, but may not impose conditions, health precautions, designed to prevent the spread of disease, or induce the movement of population to safer or more sanitary areas. All that, because it is purchased regulation infringing state powers, must be left for the states, who are unable or unwilling to supply the necessary relief. The government may spend its money for vocational rehabilitation, 48 Stat. 389, but it may not, with the consent of all concerned, supervise the process which it undertakes to aid. It may spend its money for the suppression of the boll weevil, but may not compensate the farmers for suspending the growth of otton in the infected areas. It may aid state reforestation and forest fire prevention agencies, 43 Stat. 653 (see 16 U.S.C.A. §§ 471, 499 note, 505, 515, 564 et seq.), but may not be permitted to supervise their conduct. It may support rural schools, 39 Stat. 929 (20 U.S.C.A. § 11 et seq.), 45 Stat. 1151 (20 U.S.C.A. §§ 15a to 15c), 48 Stat. 792 (20 U.S.C.A. §§ 15d to 15g), but may not condition its grant by the requirement that certain standards be maintained. It may appropriate moneys to be expended by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation 'to aid in financing agriculture, commerce and industry,' and to facilitate 'the exportation of agricultural and other products.' Do all its activities collapse because, in order to effect the permissible purpose in myriad ways the money is paid out upon terms and conditions which influence action of the recipients within the states, which Congress cannot command? The answer would seem plain. If the expenditure is for a national public purpose, that purpose will not be thwarted because payment is on condition which will advance that purpose. The action which Congress induces by payments of money to promote the general welfare, but which it does not command or coerce, is but an incident to a specifically granted power, but a permissible means to a legitimate end. If appropriation in aid of a program of curtailment of agricultural production is constitutional, and it is not denied that it is, payment to farmers on condition that they reduce their crop acreage is constitutional. It is not any the less so because the farmer at his own option promises to fulfill the condition.

That the governmental power of the purse is a great one is not now for the first time announced. Every student of the history of government and economics is aware of its magnitude and of its existence in every civilized government. Both were well understood by the framers of the Constitution when they sanctioned the grant of the spending power to the federal government, and both were recognized by Hamilton and Story, whose views of the spending power as standing on a parity with the other powers specifically granted, have hitherto been generally accepted.

The suggestion that it must now be curtailed by judicial fiat because it may be abused by unwise use hardly rises to the dignity of argument. So may judicial power be abused. 'The power to tax is the power to destroy,' but we do not, for that reason, doubt its existence, or hold that its efficacy is to be restricted by its incidental or collateral effects upon the states. See Veazie Bank v. Fenno, 8 Wall. 533, 19 L.Ed. 482; McCray v. United States, 195 U.S. 27, 24 S.Ct. 769, 49 L.Ed. 78, 1 Ann.Cas. 561; compare Magnano Co. v. Hamilton, 292 U.S. 40, 54 S.Ct. 599, 78 L.Ed. 1109. The power to tax and spend is not without constitutional restraints. One restriction is that the purpose must be truly national. Another is that it may not be used to coerce action left to state control. Another is the conscience and patriotism of Congress and the Executive. 'It must be remembered that legislatures are ultimate guardians of the liberties and welfare of the people in quite as great a degree as the courts.' Justice Holmes, in Missouri, Kansas & Texas R. Co. v. May, 194 U.S. 267, 270, 24 S.Ct. 638, 639, 48 L.Ed. 971.

A tortured construction of the Constitution is not to be justified by recourse to extreme examples of reckless congressional spending which might occur if courts could not prevent-expenditures which, even if they could be thought to effect any national purpose, would be possible only by action of a legislature lost to all sense of public responsibility. Such suppositions are addressed to the mind accustomed to believe that it is the business of courts to sit in judgment on the wisdom of legislative action. Courts are not the only agency of government that must be assumed to have capacity to govern. Congress and the courts both unhappily may falter or be mistaken in the performance of their constitutional duty But interpretation of our great charter of government which proceeds on any assumption that the responsibility for the preservation of our institutions is the exclusive concern of any one of the three branches of government, or that it alone can save them from destruction is far more likely, in the long run, 'to obliterate the constituent members' of 'an indestructible union of indestructible states' than the frank recognition that language, even of a constitution, may mean what it says: that the power to tax and spend includes the power to relieve a nationwide economic maladjustment by conditional gifts of money.

Mr. Justice BRANDEIS and Mr. Justice CARDOZO join in this opinion.


^1  Whether coercion was the sole or the dominant purpose of the Bankhead Act, or whether the act was designed also for revenue or other legitimate ends, there is no occasion to consider now.

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).