|Pollock v. Farmers' Loan and Trust Company
[ Fuller ]
[ Field ]
[ White ]
[ Harlan ]
Pollock v. Farmers' Loan and Trust Company
APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
MR. JUSTICE WHITE with whom concurred MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, dissenting.
My brief judicial experience has convinced me that the custom of filing long dissenting opinions is one "more honored in the breach than in the observance." The only purpose which an elaborate dissent can accomplish, if any, is to weaken the effect of the opinion of the majority, and thus engender want of confidence in the conclusions of courts of last resort. This consideration would impel me to content myself with simply recording my dissent in the present case were it not for the fact that I consider that the result of the opinion of the court just announced is to overthrow a long and consistent line of decisions, and to deny to the legislative department of the government the possession of a power conceded to it by universal consensus for one hundred years, and which has been recognized by repeated adjudications of this court. The issues presented are as follows:
Complainant, as a stockholder in a corporation, avers that the latter will voluntarily pay the income tax levied under the recent act of Congress; that such tax is unconstitutional, and that its voluntary payment will seriously affect his interest by defeating his right to test the validity of the exaction, and also lead to a multiplicity of suits against the corporation. The prayer of the bill is as follows: First. That it may be decreed that the provisions known as "The Income Tax Law," incorporated in the act of Congress, passed August 15, 1894, are unconstitutional, null, and void. Second. That the defendant be restrained from voluntarily complying with the provisions of that act by making its returns and statements, [p609] and paying the tax. The bill, therefore, presents two substantial questions for decision: the right of the plaintiff to relief in the form in which he claims it, and his right to relief on the merits.
The decisions of this Court hold that the collection of a tax levied by the government of the United States will not be restrained by its courts. Cheatham v. United States, 92 U.S. 85; Snyder v. Marks, 109 U.S. 189. See also Elliott v. Swartwout, 10 Pet. 137; City of Philadelphia v. The Collector, 5 Wall. 720; Hornthall v. The Collector, 9 Wall. 560. The same authorities have established the rule that the proper course, in a case of illegal taxation, is to pay the tax under protest or with notice of suit, and then bring an action against the officer who collected it. The statute law of the United States, in express terms, gives a party who has paid a tax under protest the right to sue for its recovery. Rev.Stat. § 3226.
The act of 1867 forbids the maintenance of any suit "for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax." The provisions of this act are now found in Rev.Stat. § 3224.
The complainant is seeking to do the very thing which, according to the statute and the decisions above referred to, may not be done. If the corporator cannot have the collection of the tax enjoined, it seems obvious that he cannot have the corporation enjoined from paying it, and thus do by indirection what he cannot do directly.
It is said that such relief as is here sought has been frequently allowed. The cases relied on are Dodge v. Woolsey, 18 How. 331, and Hawes v. Oakland, 104 U.S. 450. Neither of these authorities, I submit, is in point. In Dodge v. Woolsey, the main question at issue was the validity of a state tax, and that case did not involve the act of Congress to which I have referred. Hawes v. Oakland was a controversy between a stockholder and a corporation, and had no reference whatever to taxation.
The complainant's attempt to establish a right to relief upon the ground that this is not a suit to enjoin the tax, but [p610] one to enjoin the corporation from paying it, involves the fallacy already pointed out -- that is, that a party can exercise a right indirectly which he cannot assert directly -- that he can compel his agent, through process of this court, to violate an act of Congress.
The rule which forbids the granting of an injunction to restrain the collection of a tax is founded on broad reasons of public policy, and should not be ignored. In Cheatham v. United States, 92 U.S. 85, 89, which involved the validity of an income tax levied under an act of Congress prior to the one here in issue, this court, through Mr. Justice Miller, said:
If there existed in the courts, state or National, any general power of impeding or controlling the collection of taxes or relieving the hardship incident to taxation, the very existence of the government might be placed in the power of a hostile judiciary. Dows v. The City of Chicago, 11 Wall. 108. While a free course of remonstrance and appeal is allowed within the departments before the money is finally exacted, the general government has wisely made the payment of the tax claimed, whether of customs or of internal revenue, a condition precedent to a resort to the courts by the party against whom the tax is assessed. In the internal revenue branch, it has further prescribed that no such suit shall be brought until the remedy by appeal has been tried; and, if brought after this, it must be within six months after the decision on the appeal. We regard this as a condition on which alone the government consents to litigate the lawfulness of the original tax. It is not a hard condition. Few governments have conceded such a right on any condition. If the compliance with this condition requires the party aggrieved to pay the money, he must do it.
92 U.S. 85, 89.
Again, in Railroad Tax Cases, 92 U.S. 575, 613, the court said:
That there might be no misunderstanding of the universality of this principle, it was expressly enacted, in 1867, that "no suit for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax shall be maintained in any court." Rev.Stat. sect. 3224. And though this was intended to apply alone to taxes levied by the United States, it shows the sense [p611] of Congress of the evils to be feared if courts of justice could, in any case, interfere with the process of collecting the taxes on which the government depends for its continued existence. It is a wise policy. It is founded in the simple philosophy, derived from the experience of ages, that the payment of taxes has to be enforced by summary and stringent means against a reluctant and often adverse sentiment, and, to do this successfully, other instrumentalities and other modes of procedure are necessary than those which belong to courts of justice. See Cheatham v. Norvell, decided at this term; Nicoll v. United States, 7 Wall. 122; Dows v. Chicago, 11 Wall. 108.
The contention that a right to equitable relief arises from the fact that the corporator is without remedy unless such relief be granted him is, I think, without foundation. This court has repeatedly said that the illegality of a tax is not ground for the issuance of an injunction against its collection if there be an adequate remedy at law open to the payer. Dows v. City of Chicago, 11 Wall. 108; Hannewinkle v. Georgetown, 15 Wall. 547; Board of Liquidation v. McComb, 92 U.S. 531; State Railroad Tax Cases, 92 U.S. 575; Union Pacific Railway v. Cheyenne, 113 U.S. 516; Milwaukee v. Koeffler, 116 U.S. 219; Pacific Express Co. v. Seibert, 142 U.S. 339 -- as in the case where the state statute by which the tax is imposed allows a suit for its recovery after payment under protest. Shelton v. Platt, 139 U.S. 591; Allen v. Pullman's Palace Car Co., 139 U.S. 658.
The decision here is that this court will allow, on the theory of equitable right, a remedy expressly forbidden by the statutes of the United States, though it has denied the existence of such a remedy in the case of a tax levied by a State.
Will it be said that, although a stockholder cannot have a corporation enjoined from paying a state tax where the state statute gives him the right to sue for its recovery, yet, when the United States not only gives him such right, but, in addition, forbids the issue of an injunction to prevent the payment of Federal taxes, the court will allow to the stockholder [p612] a remedy against the United States tax which it refuses against the state tax?
The assertion that this is only a suit to prevent the voluntary payment of the tax suggests that the court may, by an order operating directly upon the defendant corporation, accomplish a result which the statute manifestly intended should not be accomplished by suit in any court. A final judgment forbidding the corporation from paying the tax will have the effect to prevent its collection, for it could not be that the court would permit a tax to be collected from a corporation which it had enjoined from paying. I take it to be beyond dispute that the collection of the tax in question cannot be restrained by any proceeding or suit, whatever its form, directly against the officer charged with the duty of collecting such tax. Can the statute be evaded, in a suit between a corporation and a stockholder, by a judgment forbidding the former from paying the tax, the collection of which cannot be restrained by suit in any court? Suppose, notwithstanding the final judgment just rendered, the collector proceeds to collect from the defendant corporation the taxes which the court declares, in this suit, cannot be legally assessed upon it. If that final judgment is sufficient in law to justify resistance against such collection, then we have a case in which a suit has been maintained to restrain the collection of taxes. If such judgment does not conclude the collector, who was not a party to the suit in which it was rendered, then it is of no value to the plaintiff. In other words, no form of expression can conceal the fact that the real object of this suit is to prevent the collection of taxes imposed by Congress, notwithstanding the express statutory requirement that "no suit for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax shall be maintained in any court." Either the decision of the constitutional question is necessary or it is not. If it is necessary, then the court, by way of granting equitable relief, does the very thing which the act of Congress forbids. If it is unnecessary, then the court decides the act of Congress here asserted unconstitutional, without being obliged to do so by the requirements of the case before it. [p613]
This brings me to the consideration of the merits of the cause.
The constitutional provisions respecting Federal taxation are four in number, and are as follows:
1. "Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States, which may be included within this Union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons." Art. I, sec. 2, clause 3. (The Fourteenth Amendment modified this provision, so that the whole number of persons in each State should be counted, "Indians not taxed" excluded.)
2. "The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts, and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States." Art. I, sec. 8, clause 1.
3. "No capitation or other direct tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the census or enumeration hereinbefore directed to be taken." Art. I, sec. 9, clause 4.
4. "No tax or duty shall be laid on articles exported from any State." Art. I, sec. 9, clause 5.
It has been suggested that, as the above provisions ordain the apportionment of direct taxes, and authorize Congress to "lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises," therefore there is a class of taxes which are neither direct, and are not duties, imposts, and excises, and are exempt from the rule of apportionment on the one hand or of uniformity on the other. The soundness of this suggestion need not be discussed, as the words, "duties, imposts, and excises," in conjunction with the reference to direct taxes, adequately convey all power of taxation to the Federal government.
It is not necessary to pursue this branch of the argument, since it is unquestioned that the provisions of the Constitution vest in the United States plenary powers of taxation, that is, all the powers which belong to a government as such, except [p614] that of taxing exports. The court in this case so says, and quotes approvingly the language of this court, speaking through Mr. Chief Justice Chase, in License Tax Cases, 5 Wall. 462, 471, as follows:
It is true that the power of Congress to tax is a very extensive power. It is given in the Constitution with only one exception and only two qualifications. Congress cannot tax exports, and it must impose direct taxes by the rule of apportionment, and indirect taxes by the rule of uniformity. Thus limited and thus only, it reaches every subject, and may be exercised at discretion.
In deciding, then, the question of whether the income tax violates the Constitution, we have to determine not the existence of a power in Congress, but whether an admittedly unlimited power to tax (the income tax not being a tax on exports) has been used according to the restrictions as to methods for its exercise, found in the Constitution. Not power, it must be borne in mind, but the manner of its use is the only issue presented in this case. The limitations in regard to the mode of direct taxation imposed by the Constitution are that capitation and other direct taxes shall be apportioned among the States according to their respective numbers, while duties, imposts, and excises must be uniform throughout the United States. The meaning of the word "uniform" in the Constitution need not be examined, as the court is divided upon that subject, and no expression of opinion thereon is conveyed or intended to be conveyed in this dissent.
In considering whether we are to regard an income tax as "direct" or otherwise, it will, in my opinion, serve no useful purpose, at this late period of our political history, to seek to ascertain the meaning of the word "direct" in the Constitution by resorting to the theoretical opinions on taxation found in the writings of some economists prior to the adoption of the Constitution or since. These economists teach that the question of whether a tax is direct or indirect depends not upon whether it is directly levied upon a person, but upon whether, when so levied, it may be ultimately shifted from the person [p615] in question to the consumer, thus becoming, while direct in the method of its application, indirect in its final results because it reaches the person who really pays it only indirectly. I say it will serve no useful purpose to examine these writers because whatever may have been the value of their opinions as to the economic sense of the word "direct," they cannot now afford any criterion for determining its meaning in the Constitution, inasmuch as an authoritative and conclusive construction has been given to that term, as there used, by an interpretation adopted shortly after the formation of the Constitution by the legislative department of the government and approved by the Executive, by the adoption of that interpretation from that time to the present without question, and its exemplification and enforcement in many legislative enactments, and its acceptance by the authoritative text writers on the Constitution, by the sanction of that interpretation, in a decision of this court rendered shortly after the Constitution was adopted, and finally by the repeated reiteration and affirmance of that interpretation, so that it has become imbedded in our jurisprudence, and therefore may be considered almost a part of the written Constitution itself.
Instead, therefore, of following counsel in their references to economic writers and their discussion of the motives and thoughts which may or may not have been present in the minds of some of the framers of the Constitution, as if the question before us were one of first impression, I shall confine myself to a demonstration of the truth of the propositions just laid down.
By the act of June 5, 1794, c. 45, 1 Stat. 373, Congress levied, without reference to apportionment, a tax on carriages "for the conveyance of persons." The act provided
that there shall be levied, collected, and paid upon all carriages for the conveyance of persons which shall be kept by, or for any person for his or her own use, or to be let out to hire, or for the conveying of passengers, the several duties and rates following;
and then came a yearly tax on every
coach, chariot, phaeton, and coachee, every four-wheeled and every [p616] two-wheeled top carriage, and upon every other two-wheeled carriage,
varying in amount according to the vehicle.
The debates which took place at the passage of that act are meagerly preserved. It may, however, be inferred from them that some considered that whether a tax was "direct" or not in the sense of the Constitution depended upon whether it was levied on the object or on its use. The carriage tax was defended by a few on the ground that it was a tax on consumption. Mr. Madison opposed it as unconstitutional, evidently upon the conception that the word "direct" in the Constitution was to be considered as having the same meaning as that which had been attached to it by some economic writers. His view was not sustained, and the act passed by a large majority -- forty-nine to twenty-two. It received the approval of Washington. The Congress which passed this law numbered among its members many who sat in the convention which framed the Constitution. It is moreover safe to say that each member of that Congress, even although he had not been in the convention, had, in some way, either directly or indirectly, been an influential actor in the events which led up to the birth of that instrument. It is impossible to make an analysis of this act which will not show that its provisions constitute a rejection of the economic construction of the word "direct," and this result equally follows whether the tax be treated as laid on the carriage itself or on its use by the owner. If viewed in one light, then the imposition of the tax on the owner of the carriage, because of his ownership, necessarily constituted a direct tax under the rule as laid down by economists. So, also, the imposition of a burden of taxation on the owner for the use by him of his own carriage made the tax direct according to the same rule. The tax having been imposed without apportionment, it follows that those who voted for its enactment must have given to the word "direct" in the Constitution a different significance from that which is affixed to it by the economists referred to.
The validity of this carriage tax was considered by this court in Hylton v. United States, 3 Dall. 171. Chief Justice Ellsworth and Mr. Justice Cushing took no part in [p617] the decision. Mr. Justice Wilson stated that he had, in the Circuit Court of Virginia, expressed his opinion in favor of the constitutionality of the tax. Mr. Justice Chase, Mr. Justice Paterson, and Mr. Justice Iredell each expressed the reasons for his conclusions. The tax, though laid, as I have said, on the carriage, was held not to be a direct tax under the Constitution. Two of the judges who sat in that case (Mr. Justice Paterson and Mr. Justice Wilson) had been distinguished members of the constitutional convention. Excerpts from the observations of the justices are given in the opinion of the Court. Mr. Justice Paterson, in addition to the language there quoted, spoke as follows, p. 177 (the italics being mine):
I never entertained a doubt that the principal, I will not say the only, objects that the framers of the Constitution contemplated as falling within the rule of apportionment were a capitation tax and a tax on land. Local considerations, and the particular circumstances and relative situation of the States, naturally lead to this view of the subject. The provision was made in favor of the Southern States. They possessed a large number of slaves; they had extensive tracts of territory, thinly settled and not very productive. A majority of the States had but few slaves, and several of them a limited territory, well settled, and in a high state of cultivation. The Southern States, if no provision had been introduced in the Constitution, would have been wholly at the mercy of the other States. Congress, in such case, might tax slaves at discretion or arbitrarily, and land in every part of the Union after the same rate or measure -- so much a head in the first instance and so much an acre in the second. To guard them against imposition in these particulars was the reason of introducing the clause in the Constitution which directs that representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the States according to their respective numbers.
It is evident that Mr. Justice Chase coincided with these views of Mr. Justice Paterson, though he was perhaps not quite so firmly settled in his convictions, for he said, p. 176:
I am inclined to think, but of this I do not give a judicial [p618] opinion, that the direct taxes contemplated by the Constitution are only two, to-wit, a capitation or poll tax simply, without regard to property, profession, or any other circumstances, and the tax on land. I doubt whether a tax by a general assessment of personal property within the United States is included within the term "direct tax."
Mr. Justice Iredell certainly entertained similar views, since he said, p. 183:
Some difficulties may occur which we do not at present foresee. Perhaps a direct tax in the sense of the Constitution can mean nothing but a tax on something inseparably annexed to the soil; something capable of apportionment under all such circumstances. A land or poll tax may be considered of this description. . . . In regard to other articles, there may possibly be considerable doubt.
These opinions strongly indicate that the real convictions of the justices were that only capitation taxes and taxes on land were direct within the meaning of the Constitution, but they doubted whether some other objects of a kindred nature might not be embraced in that word. Mr. Justice Paterson had no doubt whatever of the limitation, and Justice Iredell's doubt seems to refer only to things which were inseparably connected with the soil, and which might therefore be considered, in a certain sense, as real estate.
That case, however, established that a tax levied without apportionment on an object of personal property was not a "direct tax" within the meaning of the Constitution. There can be no doubt that the enactment of this tax and its interpretation by the court, as well as the suggestion in the opinions delivered, that nothing was a direct tax within the meaning of the Constitution but a capitation tax and a tax on land, was all directly in conflict with the views of those who claimed at the time that the word "direct" in the Constitution was to be interpreted according to the views of economists. This is conclusively shown by Mr. Madison's language. He asserts not only that the act had been passed contrary to the Constitution, but that the decision of the court was likewise in violation of that instrument. Ever since the announcement [p619] of the decision in that case, the legislative department of the government has accepted the opinions of the justices as well as the decision itself as conclusive in regard to the meaning of the word "direct," and it has acted upon that assumption in many instances, and always with Executive endorsement. All the acts passed levying direct taxes confined them practically to a direct levy on land. True, in some of these acts, a tax on slaves was included, but this inclusion, as has been said by this court, was probably based upon the theory that these were, in some respects, taxable along with the land, and therefore their inclusion indicated no departure by Congress from the meaning of the word "direct," necessarily resulting from the decision in the Hylton case, and which, moreover, had been expressly elucidated and suggested as being practically limited to capitation taxes and taxes on real estate by the justices who expressed opinions in that case.
These acts imposing direct taxes having been confined in their operation exclusively to real estate and slaves, the subject matters indicated as the proper object of direct taxation in the Hylton case, are the strongest possible evidence that this suggestion was accepted as conclusive, and had become a settled rule of law. Some of these acts were passed at times of great public necessity, when revenue was urgently required. The fact that no other subjects were selected for the purposes of direct taxation except those which the judges in the Hylton case had suggested as appropriate therefor seems to me to lead to a conclusion which is absolutely irresistible -- that the meaning thus affixed to the word "direct" at the very formation of the government was considered as having been as irrevocably determined as if it had been written in the Constitution in express terms. As I have already observed, every authoritative writer who has discussed the Constitution from that date down to this has treated this judicial and legislative ascertainment of the meaning of the word "direct" in the Constitution as giving it a constitutional significance without reference to the theoretical distinction between "direct" and "indirect" made by some economists prior to the Constitution or since. This doctrine [p620] has become a part of the hornbook of American constitutional interpretation, has been taught as elementary in all the law schools, and has never since then been anywhere authoritatively questioned. Of course, the textbooks may conflict in some particulars, or indulge in reasoning not always consistent, but, as to the effect of the decision in the Hylton case and the meaning of the word "direct" in the Constitution resulting therefrom, they are a unit. I quote briefly from them.
Chancellor Kent, in his Commentaries thus states the principle:
The construction of the powers of Congress relative to taxation was brought before the Supreme Court in 1796 in the case of Hylton v. The United States. By the act of 5th June, 1794, Congress laid a duty upon carriages for the conveyance of persons, and the question was whether this was a direct tax within the meaning of the Constitution. If it was not a direct tax, it was admitted to be rightly laid under that part of the Constitution which declares that all duties, imposts, and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States; but if it was a direct tax, it was not constitutionally laid, for it must then be laid according to the census under that part of the Constitution which declares that direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States according to numbers. The Circuit Court in Virginia was divided in opinion on the question, but, on appeal to the Supreme Court, it was decided that the tax on carriages was not a direct tax within the letter or meaning of the Constitution, and was therefore constitutionally laid.
The question was deemed of very great importance, and was elaborately argued. It was held that a general power was given to Congress to lay and collect taxes of every kind or nature, without any restraint. They had plenary power over every species of taxable property except exports. But there were two rules prescribed for their government: the rule of uniformity and the rule of apportionment. Three kinds of taxes, viz., duties, imposts, and excises, were to be laid by the first rule, and capitation and other direct taxes by the second rule. If there were any other species of taxes, as the [p621] court seemed to suppose there might be, that were not direct and not included within the words duties, imposts, or excises, they were to be laid by the rule of uniformity or not as Congress should think proper and reasonable.
The Constitution contemplated no taxes as direct taxes but such as Congress could lay in proportion to the census, and the rule of apportionment could not reasonably apply to a tax on carriages, nor could the tax on carriages be laid by that rule without very great inequality and injustice. If two states, equal in census, were each to pay 8,000 dollars by a tax on carriages, and in one state there were 100 carriages and in another 1,000, the tax on each carriage would be ten times as much in one state as in the other. While A, in the one state, would pay for his carriage eight dollars, B, in the other state, would pay for his carriage eighty dollars. In this way, it was shown by the court that the notion that a tax on carriages was a direct tax within the purview of the Constitution, and to be apportioned according to the census would lead to the grossest abuse and oppression. This argument was conclusive against the construction set up, and the tax on carriages was considered as included within the power to lay duties, and the better opinion seemed to be that the direct taxes contemplated by the Constitution were only two, viz., a capitation or poll tax and a tax on land.
1 Kent Com. 254, 256.
Story, speaking on the same subject, 1 Story Const. § 955, says:
Taxes on lands, houses, and other permanent real estate, or on parts or appurtenances thereof, have always been deemed of the same character, that is, direct taxes. It has been seriously doubted if, in the sense of the Constitution, any taxes are direct taxes except those on polls or on lands. Mr. Justice Chase, in Hylton v. United States, 3 Dall. 171, said:
I am inclined to think that the direct taxes contemplated by the Constitution are only two, viz: a capitation or poll tax simply, without regard to property, profession, or other circumstances, and a tax on land. I doubt whether a tax by a general assessment of personal property within the United States is included within the term "direct tax."
Mr. Justice Paterson, in the same case, said:
It is not necessary to determine [p622] whether a tax on the produce of land be a direct or an indirect tax. Perhaps the immediate product of land, in its original and crude state, ought to be considered as a part of the land itself. When the produce is converted into a manufacture, it assumes a new shape, etc. Whether "direct taxes," in the sense of the Constitution, comprehend any other tax than a capitation tax or a tax on land is a questionable point, etc. I never entertained a doubt that the principal, I will not say the only, objects that the framers of the Constitution contemplated, as falling within the rule of apportionment, were a capitation tax and a tax on land.
And he proceeded to state that the rule of apportionment, both as regards representatives and as regards direct taxes, was adopted to guard the Southern States against undue impositions and oppressions in the taxing of slaves. Mr. Justice Iredell, in the same case, said:
Perhaps a direct tax, in the sense of the Constitution, can mean nothing but a tax on something inseparably annexed to the soil; something capable of apportionment under all such circumstances. A land or poll tax may be considered of this description. The latter is to be considered so, particularly under the present Constitution, on account of the slaves in the Southern States, who give a ratio in the representation in the proportion of three to five. Either of these is capable of an apportionment. In regard to other articles, there may possibly be considerable doubt.
The reasoning of the Federalist seems to lead to the same result.
Cooley, in his work on Constitutional Limitations 595, 5th ed., marginal paging *480, thus tersely states the rule:
Direct taxes, when laid by Congress, must be apportioned among the several States according to the representative population. The term "direct taxes," as employed in the Constitution, has a technical meaning, and embraces capitation and land taxes only.
Miller on the Constitution 37 thus puts it:
Under the provisions already quoted, the question came up as to what is a "direct tax," and also upon what property it is to be levied, as distinguished from any other tax. In regard to this, it is sufficient to say that it is believed that no other than a capitation tax of so much per head and a land tax is a direct tax [p623] within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States. All other taxes, except imposts are properly called excise taxes. Direct taxes, within the meaning of the Constitution, are only capitation taxes, as expressed in that instrument, and taxes on real estate.
In Pomeroy's Constitutional Law (§ 281), we read as follows:
It becomes necessary, therefore, to inquire a little more particularly: what are direct and what indirect taxes? Few cases on the general question of taxation have arisen and been decided by the Supreme Court for the simple reason that, until the past few years, the United States has generally been able to obtain all needful revenue from the single source of duties upon imports. There can be no doubt, however, that all the taxes provided for in the internal revenue acts now in operation are indirect.
This subject came before the Supreme Court of the United States in a very early case, Hylton v. The United States. In the year 1794, Congress laid a tax of ten dollars on all carriages, and the rate was thus made uniform. The validity of the statute was disputed; it was claimed that the tax was direct, and should have been apportioned among the states. The court decided that this tax was not direct. The reasons given for the decision are unanswerable, and would seem to cover all the provisions of the present internal revenue laws.
Hare, in his treatise on American Constitutional Law (vol. 1, pp. 249, 250), is to the like effect:
Agreeably to section 9 of article I, paragraph 4, "no capitation or other direct tax shall be laid except in proportion to the census or enumeration hereinbefore directed to be taken," while section 3 of the same article requires that representation and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States . . . according to their respective numbers. Direct taxes in the sense of the Constitution are poll taxes and taxes on land.
Burroughs on Taxation (p. 502) takes the same view:
Direct taxes -- The kinds of taxation authorized are both direct and indirect. The construction given to the expression "direct taxes" is that it includes only a tax on land and a poll [p624] tax, and this is in accord with the views of writers upon political economy.
Ordronaux, in his Constitutional Legislation (p. 225), says:
Congress having been given the power "to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises," the above three provisions are limitations upon the exercise of this authority:
1st. By distinguishing between direct and indirect taxes as to their mode of assessment;
2d. By establishing a permanent freedom of trade between the States; and
3d. By prohibiting any discrimination in favor of particular States through revenue laws establishing a preference between their ports and those of the others.
These provisions should be read together, because they are at the foundation of our system of national taxation.
The two rules prescribed for the government of Congress in laying taxes are those of apportionment for direct taxes and uniformity for indirect. In the first class are to be found capitation or poll taxes and taxes on land; in the second, duties, imposts, and excises.
The provision relating to capitation taxes was made in favor of the Southern States, and for the protection of slave property. While they possessed a large number of persons of this class, they also had extensive tracts of sparsely settled and unproductive lands. At the same time, an opposite condition, both as to land territory and population, existed in a majority of the other States. Were Congress permitted to tax slaves and land in all parts of the country at a uniform rate, the Southern Slave States must have been placed at a great disadvantage. Hence, and to guard against this inequality of circumstances, there was introduced into the Constitution the further provision that "representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the States according to their respective numbers." This changed the basis of direct taxation from a strictly monetary standard, which could not equitably be made uniform throughout the country, to one resting upon population as the measure of representation. But for this, Congress might have taxed slaves arbitrarily and [p625] at its pleasure as so much property, and land uniformly throughout the Union regardless of differences in productiveness. It is not strange, therefore, that, in Hylton v. United States, the court said that
the rule of apportionment is radically wrong, and cannot be supported by any solid reasoning. It ought not, therefore, to be extended by construction. Apportionment is an operation on States and involves valuations and assessments which are arbitrary, and should not be resorted to but in case of necessity.
Direct taxes being now well settled in their meaning, a tax on carriages left for the use of the owner is not a capitation tax, nor a tax on the business of an insurance company, nor a tax on a bank's circulation, nor a tax on income, nor a succession tax. The foregoing are not, properly speaking, direct taxes within the meaning of the Constitution, but excise taxes or duties.
Black, writing on Constitutional Law, says:
But the chief difficulty has arisen in determining what is the difference between direct taxes and such as are indirect. In general usage, and according to the terminology of political economy, a direct tax is one which is levied upon the person who is to pay it, or upon his land or personalty, or his business or income, as the case may be. An indirect tax is one assessed upon the manufacturer or dealer in the particular commodity, and paid by him, but which really falls upon the consumer, since it is added to the market price of the commodity which he must pay. But the course of judicial decision has determined that the term "direct," as here applied to taxes, is to be taken in a more restricted sense. The Supreme Court has ruled that only land taxes and capitation taxes are "direct," and no others. In 1794, Congress levied a tax of ten dollars on all carriages kept for use, and it was held that this was not a direct tax. And so also an income tax is not to be considered direct. Neither is a tax on the circulation of state banks, nor a succession tax, imposed upon every "devolution of title to real estate."
Opinions cited on page 162.
Not only have the other departments of the government accepted the significance attached to the word "direct" in the [p626] Hylton case by their actions as to direct taxes, but they have also relied on it as conclusive in their dealings with indirect taxes by levying them solely upon objects which the judges in that case declared were not objects of direct taxation. Thus, the affirmance by the Federal legislature and executive of the doctrine established as a result of the Hylton case has been two-fold.
From 1861 to 1870. many laws levying taxes on income were enacted, as follows: Act of August 5, 1861, c. 45, 12 Stat. 292, 309, 311; Act of July 1, 1862, c. 119, 12 Stat. 432, 473, 47; Act of March 3, 1863, c. 74, 12 Stat. 713, 718, 723 Act of June 30, 1864, c. 173, 13 Stat. 223, 281, 285; Act of March 3, 1865, c. 78, 18 Stat. 469, 479, 481; Act of March 10, 1866, c. 15, 14 Stat. 4, 5; Act of July 13, 1866, c. 184, 14 Stat. 98, 137, 140; Act of March 2, 1867, c. 169, 14 Stat. 471, 477, 480; Act of July 14, 1870, c. 255, 16 Stat. 256, 261.
The statutes above referred to all cover income and every conceivable source of revenue from which it could result -- rentals from real estate, products of personal property, the profits of business or professions.
The validity of these laws has been tested before this court. The first case on the subject was that of the Pacific Insurance Company v. Soule, 7 Wall. 433, 443. The controversy in that case arose under the ninth section of the act of July 13, 1866, 14 Stat. 137, 140, which imposed a tax on
all dividends in scrip and money, thereafter declared due, wherever and whenever the same shall be payable, to stockholders, policyholders, or depositors or parties whatsoever, including nonresidents, whether citizens or aliens, as part of the earnings, incomes, or gains of any bank, trust company, savings institution, and of any fire, marine, life, or inland insurance company, either stock or mutual, under whatever name or style known or called in the United States or Territories, whether specially incorporated or existing under general laws, and on all undistributed sum or sums made or added during the year to their surplus or contingent funds.
It will be seen that the tax imposed was levied on the income of insurance companies as a unit, including every possible [p627] source of revenue, whether from personal or real property, from business gains or otherwise. The case was presented here on a certificate of division of opinion below. One of the questions propounded was
whether the taxes paid by the plaintiff and sought to be recovered in this action are not direct taxes within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States?
The issue, therefore, necessarily brought before this court was whether an act imposing an income tax on every possible source of revenue was valid or invalid. The case was carefully, ably, elaborately, and learnedly argued. The brief on behalf of the company, filed by Mr. Wills, was supported by another signed by Mr. W. O. Bartlett, which covered every aspect of the contention. It rested the weight of its argument against the statute on the fact that it included the rents of real estate among the sources of income taxed, and therefore put a direct tax upon the land. Able as have been the arguments at bar in the present case, an examination of those then presented will disclose the fact that every view here urged was there pressed upon the court with the greatest ability, and after exhaustive research, equalled but not surpassed by the eloquence and learning which has accompanied the presentation of this case. Indeed, it may be said that the principal authorities cited and relied on now can be found in the arguments which were then submitted. It may be added that the case on behalf of the government was presented by Attorney General Evarts.
The court answered all the contentions by deciding the generic question of the validity of the tax, thus passing necessarily upon every issue raised, as the whole necessarily includes every one of its parts. I quote the reasoning applicable to the matter now in hand:
The sixth question is:
Whether the taxes paid by the plaintiff and sought to be recovered back in this action are not direct taxes within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.
In considering this subject, it is proper to advert to the several provisions of the Constitution relating to taxation by Congress.
Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which shall be included [p628] in this Union according to their respective numbers,
Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debt and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts, and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.
No capitation or other direct tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the census or enumeration hereinbefore directed to be taken.
No tax or duty shall be laid on articles exported from any State.
These clauses contain the entire grant of the taxing power by the organic law, with the limitations which that instrument imposes.
The national government, though supreme within its own sphere, is one of limited jurisdiction and specific functions. It has no faculties but such as the Constitution has given it either expressly or incidentally by necessary intendment. Whenever any act done under its authority is challenged, the proper sanction must be found in its charter or the act is ultra vires and void. This test must be applied in the examination of the question before us. If the tax to which it refers is a "direct tax," it is clear that it has not been laid in conformity to the requirements of the Constitution. It is therefore necessary to ascertain to which of the categories named in the eighth section of the first article it belongs.
What are direct taxes was elaborately argued and considered by this court in Hylton v. United States, decided in the year 1796. One of the members of the court, Justice Wilson, had been a distinguished member of the convention which framed the Constitution. It was unanimously held by the four justices who heard the argument that a tax upon carriages kept by the owner for his own use was not a direct tax. Justice Chase said:
I am inclined to think, but of this I do not give a judicial opinion, that the direct taxes contemplated by the Constitution are only two, to-wit, a capitation or poll tax simply, without regard to property, profession, or any other circumstances, and a tax on land.
Paterson, Justice, followed in the same line of remark. He said:
I never entertained a doubt that the principal -- I will not say [p629] the only -- object the framers of the Constitution contemplated as falling within the rule of apportionment was a capitation tax or a tax on land. . . . The Constitution declares that a capitation tax is a direct tax, and, both in theory and practice, a tax on land is deemed to be a direct tax. In this way, the terms "direct taxes" and "capitation and other direct taxes" are satisfied.
The views expressed in this case are adopted by Chancellor Kent and Justice Story in their examination of the subject. Duties are defined by Tomlin to be things due and recoverable by law. The term, in its widest signification, is hardly less comprehensive than "taxes." It is applied in its most restricted meaning meaning to customs, and in that sense is nearly the synonym of "imposts."
Impost is a duty on imported goods and merchandise. In a larger sense, it is any tax or imposition. Cowell says it is distinguished from custom "because custom is rather the profit which the prince makes on goods shipped out." Mr. Madison considered the terms "duties" and "imposts" in these clauses as synonymous. Judge Tucker thought "they were probably intended to comprehend every species of tax or contribution not included under the ordinary terms, ‘taxes and excises.'"
Excise is defined to be an inland imposition, sometimes upon the consumption of the commodity and sometimes upon the retail sale; sometimes upon the manufacturer and sometimes upon the vendor.
The taxing power is given in the most comprehensive terms. The only limitations imposed are that direct taxes, including the capitation tax, shall be apportioned, that duties, imposts, and excises shall be uniform, and that no duties shall be imposed upon articles exported from any State. With these exceptions, the exercise of the power is, in all respects, unfettered.
If a tax upon carriages kept for his own use by the owner is not a direct tax, we can see no ground upon which a tax upon the business of an insurance company can be held to belong to that class of revenue charges.
It has been held that Congress may require direct taxes to [p630] be laid and collected in the Territories as well as in the States.
The consequences which would follow the apportionment of the tax in question among the States and Territories of the Union in the manner prescribed by the Constitution must not be overlooked. They are very obvious. Where such corporations are numerous and rich, it might be light; where none exist, it could not be collected; where they are few and poor, it would fall upon them with such weight as to involve annihilation. It cannot be supposed that the framers of the Constitution intended that any tax should be apportioned the collection of which, on that principle, would be attended with such results. The consequences are fatal to the proposition.
To the question under consideration it must be answered that the tax to which it relates is not a direct tax, but a duty or excise; that it was obligatory on the plaintiff to pay it.
The other questions certified up are deemed to be sufficiently answered by the answers given to the first and sixth questions.
This opinion, it seems to me, closes the door to discussion in regard to the meaning of the word "direct" in the Constitution, and renders unnecessary a resort to the conflicting opinions of the framers or to the theories of the economists. It adopts that construction of the word which confines it to capitation taxes and a tax on land, and necessarily rejects the contention that that word was to be construed in accordance with the economic theory of shifting a tax from the shoulders of the person upon whom it was immediately levied to those of some other person. This decision, moreover, is of great importance because it is an authoritative reaffirmance of the Hylton case and an approval of the suggestions there made by the justices, and constitutes another sanction given by this court to the interpretation of the Constitution adopted by the legislative, executive, and judicial departments of the government, and thereafter continuously acted upon.
Not long thereafter, in Veazie Bank v. Fenno, 8 Wall. 533, 541, 546, the question of the application of the word "direct" was again submitted to this court. The issue there was whether a tax on the circulation of state banks was "direct" within [p631] the meaning of the Constitution. It was ably argued by the most distinguished counsel; Reverdy Johnson and Caleb Cushing representing the bank, and Attorney General Hoar the United States. The brief of Mr. Cushing again presented nearly every point now urged upon our consideration. It cited copiously from the opinions of Adam Smith and others. The constitutionality of the tax was maintained by the government on the ground that the meaning of the word "direct" in the Constitution, as interpreted by the Hylton case, as enforced by the continuous legislative construction, and as sanctioned by the consensus of opinion already referred to, was finally settled. Those who assailed the tax there urged, as is done here, that the Hylton case was not conclusive because the only question decided was the particular matter at issue, and insisted that the suggestions of the judges were mere dicta, and not to be followed. They said that Hylton v. United States adjudged one point alone, which was that a tax on a carriage was not a direct tax, and that. from the utterances of the judges in the case. it was obvious that the general question of what was a direct tax was but crudely considered. Thus, the argument there presented to this court the very view of the Hylton case which has been reiterated in the argument here, and which is sustained now. What did this court say then, speaking through Chief Justice Chase, as to these arguments? I take very fully from its opinion:
Much diversity of opinion has always prevailed upon the question, what are direct taxes? Attempts to answer it by reference to the definitions of political economists have been frequently made, but without satisfactory results. The enumeration of the different kinds of taxes which Congress was authorized to impose was probably made with very little reference to their speculations. The great work of Adam Smith, the first comprehensive treatise on political economy in the English language, had then been recently published; but in this work, though there are passages which refer to the characteristic difference between direct and indirect taxation, there is nothing which affords any valuable light on the use of the words "direct taxes" in the Constitution. [p632]
We are obliged, therefore, to resort to historical evidence, and to seek the meaning of the words in the use and in the opinion of those whose relations to the government and means of knowledge warranted them in speaking with authority.
And, considered in this light, the meaning and application of the rule as to direct taxes appears to us quite clear.
It is, as we think, distinctly shown in every act of Congress on the subject.
In each of these acts, a gross sum was laid upon the United States, and the total amount was apportioned to the several States according to their respective numbers of inhabitants, as ascertained by the last preceding census. Having been apportioned, provision was made for the imposition of the tax upon the subjects specified in the act, fixing its total sum.
In 1798, when the first direct tax was imposed, the total amount was fixed at two millions of dollars; in 1813, the amount of the second direct tax was fixed at three millions; in 1815, the amount of the third at six millions, and it made an annual tax; in 1816, the provision making the tax annual was repealed by the repeal of the first section of the act of 1815, and the total amount was fixed for that year at three millions of dollars. No other direct tax was imposed until 1861, when a direct tax of twenty millions of dollars was laid and made annual; but the provision making it annual was suspended, and no tax, except that first laid, was ever apportioned. In each instance, the total sum was apportioned among the States by the constitutional rule, and was assessed at prescribed rates on the subjects of the tax. These subjects, in 1798, 1813, 1815, 1816, were lands, improvements, dwelling houses, and slaves, and, in 1861, lands, improvements, and dwelling houses only. Under the act of 1798, slaves were assessed at fifty cents on each; under the other acts, according to valuation by assessors.
This review shows that personal property, contracts, occupations, and the like have never been regarded by Congress as proper subjects of direct tax. It has been supposed that slaves must be considered as an exception to this observation. But the exception is rather apparent than real. As persons, slaves [p633] were proper subjects of a capitation tax, which is described in the Constitution as a direct tax; as property, they were, by the laws of some, if not most, of the States classed as real property, descendible to heirs. Under the first view, they would be subject to the tax of 1798, as a capitation tax; under the latter, they would be subject to the taxation of the other years as realty. That the latter view was that taken by the framers of the acts, after 1798, becomes highly probable when it is considered that, in the States where slaves were held, much of the value which would otherwise have attached to land passed into the slaves. If, indeed, the land only had been valued without the slaves, the land would have been subject to much heavier proportional imposition in those States than in States where there were no slaves, for the proportion of tax imposed on each State was determined by population, without reference to the subjects on which it was to be assessed.
The fact, then, that slaves were valued under the acts referred to, far from showing, as some have supposed, that Congress regarded personal property as a proper object of direct taxation under the Constitution, shows only that Congress, after 1798, regarded slaves, for the purposes of taxation, as realty.
It may be rightly affirmed, therefore, that, in the practical construction of the Constitution by Congress, direct taxes have been limited to taxes on land and appurtenances and taxes on polls or capitation taxes.
And this construction is entitled to great consideration, especially in the absence of anything adverse to it in the discussions of the convention which framed and of the conventions which ratified the Constitution.
This view received the sanction of this court two years before the enactment of the first law imposing direct taxes eo nomine.
The court then reviews the Hylton case, repudiates the attack made upon it, reaffirms the construction placed on it by the legislative, executive, and judicial departments, and expressly adheres to the ruling in the insurance company case to which I have referred. Summing up, it said: [p634]
It follows necessarily that the power to tax without apportionment extends to all other objects. Taxes on other objects are included under the heads of taxes not direct, duties, imposts, and excises, and must be laid and collected by the rule of uniformity. The tax under consideration is a tax on bank circulation, and may very well be classed under the head of duties. Certainly it is not, in the sense of the Constitution, a direct tax. It may be said to come within the same category of taxation as the tax on incomes of insurance companies which this court, at the last term, in the case of Pacific Insurance Company v. Soule, held not to be a direct tax.
This case was, so far as the question of direct taxation is concerned, decided by an undivided court, for, although Mr. Justice Nelson dissented from the opinion, it was not on the ground that the tax was a direct tax, but on another question.
Some years after this decision, the matter again came here for adjudication in the case of Scholey v. Rew, 23 Wall. 331, 346. The issue there involved was the validity of a tax placed by a United States statute on the right to take real estate by inheritance. The collection of the tax was resisted on the ground that it was direct. The brief expressly urged this contention, and said the tax in question was a tax on land if ever there was one. It discussed the Hylton case, referred to the language used by the various judges, and sought to place upon it the construction which we are now urged to give it, and which has been so often rejected by this court.
This court again, by its unanimous judgment, answered all these contentions. I quote its language:
Support to the first objection is attempted to be drawn from that clause of the Constitution which provides that direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within the Union according to their respective numbers, and also from the clause which provides that no capitation or other direct tax shall be laid unless in proportion to the census or amended enumeration; but it is clear that the tax or duty levied by the act under consideration is not a direct tax within the meaning of either of those [p635] provisions. Instead of that, it is plainly an excise tax or duty, authorized by section eight of article one, which vests the power in Congress to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defence and general welfare.
Indirect taxes, such as duties of impost and excises and every other description of the same, must be uniform, and direct taxes must be laid in proportion to the census or enumeration as remodelled in the Fourteenth Amendment. Taxes on lands, houses, and other permanent real estate have always been deemed to be direct taxes, and capitation taxes, by the express words of the Constitution, are within the same category, but it never has been decided that any other legal exactions for the support of the Federal government fall within the condition that, unless laid in proportion to numbers, the assessment is invalid.
Whether direct taxes, in the sense of the Constitution, comprehend any other tax than a capitation tax and a tax on land is a question not absolutely decided, nor is it necessary to determine it in the present case, as it is expressly decided that the term does not include the tax on income, which cannot be distinguished in principle from a succession tax such as the one involved in the present controversy.
What language could more clearly and forcibly reaffirm the previous rulings of the court upon this subject? What stronger endorsement could be given to the construction of the Constitution, which had been given in the Hylton case, and which had been adopted and adhered to by all branches of the government almost from the hour of its establishment? It is worthy of note that the court here treated the decision in the Hylton case as conveying the view that the only direct taxes were "taxes on land and appurtenance." In so doing, it necessarily again adopted the suggestion of the justices there made, thus making them the adjudged conclusions of this court. It is too late now to destroy the force of the opinions in that case by qualifying them as mere dicta when they have again and again been expressly approved by this court.
If there were left a doubt as to what this established construction [p636] is, it seems to be entirely removed by the case of Springer v. United States, 102 U.S. 86, 602. Springer was assessed for an income tax on his professional earnings and on the interest on United States bonds. He declined to pay. His real estate was sold in consequence. The suit involved the validity of the tax as a basis for the sale. Again every question now presented was urged upon this court. The brief of the plaintiff in error, Springer, made the most copious references to the economic writers, Continental and English. It cited the opinions of the framers of the Constitution. It contained extracts from the journals of the convention, and marshalled the authorities in extensive and impressive array. It reiterated the argument against the validity of an income tax which included rentals. It is also asserted that the Hylton case was not authority, because the expressions of the judges in regard to anything except the carriage tax were mere dicta.
The court adhered to the ruling announced in the previous cases and held that the tax was not direct within the meaning of the Constitution. It reexamined and answered everything advanced here, and said, in summing up the case:
Our conclusions are that direct taxes, within the meaning of the Constitution, are only capitation taxes, as expressed in that instrument, and taxes on real estate, and that the tax of which the plaintiff in error complained is within the category of an excise or duty.
The facts, then, are briefly these: at the very birth of the government, a contention arose as to the meaning of the word "direct." The controversy was determined by the legislative and executive departments of the government. Their action came to this court for review, and it was approved. Every judge of this court who expressed an opinion made use of language which clearly showed that he thought the word "direct" in the Constitution applied only to capitation taxes and taxes directly on land. Thereafter, the construction thus given was accepted everywhere as definitive. The matter came again and again to this court, and, in every case, the original ruling was adhered to. The suggestions made in the Hylton case were adopted here, and, [p637] in the last case here decided, reviewing all the others, this court said that direct taxes within the meaning of the Constitution were only taxes on land and capitation taxes. And now, after a hundred years, after long-continued action by other departments of the government, and after repeated adjudications of this court, this interpretation is overthrown and the Congress is declared not to have a power of taxation which may at some time, as it has in the past, prove necessary to the very existence of the government. By what process of reasoning is this to be done? By resort to theories in order to construe the word "direct" in its economic sense, instead of in accordance with its meaning in the Constitution, when the very result of the history which I have thus briefly recounted is to show that the economic construction of the word was repudiated by the framers themselves, and has been time and time again rejected by this court; by a resort to the language of the framers and a review of their opinions, although the facts plainly show that they themselves settled the question which the court now virtually unsettles. In view of all that has taken place and of the many decisions of this court, the matter at issue here ought to be regarded as closed forever.
The injustice and harm which must always result from overthrowing a long and settled practice sanctioned by the decisions of this court could not be better illustrated than by the example which this case affords. Under the income tax laws which prevailed in the past for many years, and which covered every conceivable source of income, rentals from real estate, and everything else, vast sums were collected from the people of the United States. The decision here rendered announces that those sums were wrongfully taken, and thereby, it seems to me, creates a claim in equity and good conscience against the government for an enormous amount of money. Thus, from the change of view by this court, it happens that an act of Congress, passed for the purpose of raising revenue in strict conformity with the practice of the government from the earliest time and in accordance with the oft-repeated decisions of this court, furnishes the [p638] occasion for creating a claim against the government for hundreds of millions of dollars; I say creating a claim because, if the government be in good conscience bound to refund that which has been taken from the citizen in violation of the Constitution, although the technical right may have disappeared by lapse of time, or because the decisions of this court have misled the citizen to his grievous injury, the equity endures, and will present itself to the conscience of the government. This consequence shows how necessary it is that the court should not overthrow its past decisions. A distinguished writer aptly points out the wrong which must result to society from a shifting judicial interpretation. He says:
If rules and maxims of law were to ebb and flow with the taste of the judge, or to assume that shape which in his fancy best becomes the times; if the decisions of one case were not to be ruled by, or depend at all upon, former determinations in other cases of a like nature, I should be glad to know what person would venture to purchase an estate without first having the judgment of a court of justice respecting the identical title which he means to purchase? No reliance could be had upon precedents; former resolutions upon titles of the same kind could afford him no assurance at all. Nay, even a decision of a court of justice upon the very identical title would be nothing more than a precarious temporary security; the principle upon which it was founded might, in the course of a few years, become antiquated; the same title might be again drawn into dispute; the taste and fashion of the times might be improved, and, on that ground, a future judge might hold himself at liberty (if not consider it his duty) to pay as little regard to the maxims and decisions of his predecessor as that predecessor did to the maxims and decisions of those who went before him.
Fearne on Contingent Remainders, London ed. 1801, p. 264.
The disastrous consequences to flow from disregarding settled decisions thus cogently described must evidently become greatly magnified in a case like the present, when the opinion of the court affects fundamental principles of the government by denying an essential power of taxation [p639] long conceded to exist and often exerted by Congress. If it was necessary that the previous decisions of this court should be repudiated, the power to amend the Constitution existed, and should have been availed of. Since the Hylton case was decided, the Constitution has been repeatedly amended. The construction which confined the word "direct" to capitation and land taxes was not changed by these amendments, and it should not now be reversed by what seems to me to be a judicial amendment of the Constitution.
The finding of the court in this case, that the inclusion of rentals from real estate in an income tax makes it direct to that extent is, in my judgment, conclusively denied by the authorities to which I have referred and which establish the validity of an income tax in itself. Hence, I submit, the decision necessarily reverses the settled rule which it seemingly adopts in part. Can there be serious doubt that the question of the validity of an income tax in which the rentals of real estate are included is covered by the decisions which say that an income tax is generically indirect, and that, therefore, it is valid without apportionment? I mean, of course, could there be any such doubt were it not for the present opinion of the court? Before undertaking to answer this question, I deem it necessary to consider some arguments advanced or suggestions made.
1st. The opinions of Turgot and Smith and other economists are cited, and it is said their views were known to the framers of the Constitution, and we are then referred to the opinions of the framers themselves. The object of the collocation of these two sources of authority is to show that there was a concurrence between them as to the meaning of the word "direct." But in order to reach this conclusion, we are compelled to overlook the fact that this court has always held, as appears from the preceding cases, that the opinions of the economists threw little or no light on the interpretation of the word "direct" as found in the Constitution. And the whole effect of the decisions of this court is to establish the proposition that the word has a different significance in the Constitution from that which Smith and Turgot have given to it when used in a general economic sense. Indeed, it seems to me [p640] that the conclusion deduced from this line of thought itself demonstrates its own unsoundness. What is that conclusion? That the framers well understood the meaning of "direct."
Now it seems evident that the framers, who well understood the meaning of this word, have themselves declared in the most positive way that it shall not be here construed in the sense of Smith and Turgot. The Congress which passed the carriage tax act was composed largely of men who had participated in framing the Constitution. That act was approved by Washington, who had presided over the deliberations of the convention. Certainly Washington himself, and the majority of the framers, if they well understood the sense in which the word "direct" was used, would hare declined to adopt and approve a taxing act which clearly violated the provisions of the Constitution if the w ord "direct," as therein used, had the meaning which must be attached to it if read by the light of the theories of Turgot and Adam Smith. As has already been noted, all the judges who expressed opinions in the Hylton case suggested that "direct," in the constitutional sense, referred only to taxes on land and capitation taxes. Could they have possibly made this suggestion if the word had been used as Smith and Turgot used it? It is immaterial whether the suggestions of the judges were dicta or not. They could not certainly have made this intimation, if they understood the meaning of the word "direct" as being that which it must have imported if construed according to the writers mentioned. Take the language of Mr. Justice Paterson:
I never entertained a doubt that the principal, I will not say the only, objects that the framers of the Constitution contemplated a falling within the rule of apportionment were a capitation tax and a tax on land.
He had borne a conspicuous part in the convention. Can we say that he understood the meaning of the framers, and yet, after the lapse of a hundred years, fritter away that language, uttered by him from this bench in the first great case in which this court was called upon to interpret the meaning of the word "direct?" It cannot be said that his language was used carelessly or without a knowledge of its great import. The debate upon the passage [p641] of the carriage tax act had manifested divergence of opinion as to the meaning of the word "direct." The magnitude of the issue is shown by all contemporaneous authority to have been deeply felt, and its far-reaching consequence was appreciated. Those controversies came here for settlement and were then determined with a full knowledge of the importance of the issues. They should not be now reopened.
The argument, then, it seems to me, reduces itself to this: that the framers well knew the meaning of the word "direct;" that so well understanding it, they practically interpreted it in such a way as to plainly indicate that it had a sense contrary to that now given to it in the view adopted by the court. Although they thus comprehended the meaning of the word and interpreted it at an early day, their interpretation is now to be overthrown by resorting to the economists whose construction was repudiated by them. It is thus demonstrable that the conclusion deduced from the premise that the framers well understood the meaning of the word "direct," involves a fallacy. In other words, that it draws a faulty conclusion, even if the predicate upon which the conclusion is rested be fully admitted. But I do not admit the premise. The views of the framers cited in the argument conclusively show that they did not well understand, but were in great doubt as to, the meaning of the word "direct." The use of the word was the result of a compromise. It was accepted as the solution of a difficulty which threatened to frustrate the hopes of those who looked upon the formation of a new government as absolutely necessary to escape the condition of weakness which the Articles of Confederation had shown. Those who accepted the compromise viewed the word in different lights, and expected different results to flow from its adoption. This was the natural result of the struggle which was terminated by the adoption of the provision as to representation and direct taxes. That warfare of opinion had been engendered by the existence of slavery in some of the States, and was the consequence of the conflict of interest thus brought about. In reaching a settlement, the minds of those who acted on it were naturally concerned in the main with the cause of the [p642] contention, and not with the other things which had been previously settled by the convention. Thus, whilst there was in all probability clearness of vision as to the meaning of the word "direct" in relation to its bearing on slave property, there was inattention in regard to other things, and there were, therefore, diverse opinions as to its proper signification. That such was the case in regard to many other clauses of the Constitution has been shown to be the case by those great controversies of the past which have been peacefully settled by the adjudications of this court. Whilst this difference undoubtedly existed, as to the effect to be given the word "direct," the consensus of the majority of the framers as to its meaning was shown by the passage of the carriage tax act. That consensus found adequate expression in the opinions of the justices in the Hylton case, and in the decree of this court there rendered. The passage of that act, those opinions, and that decree, settled the proposition that the word applied only to capitation taxes and taxes on land.
Nor does the fact that there was difference in the minds of the framers as to the meaning of the word "direct" weaken the binding force of the interpretation placed upon that word from the beginning. For, if such difference existed, it is certainly sound to hold that a contemporaneous solution of a doubtful question, which has been often confirmed by this court, should not now be reversed. The framers of the Constitution, the members of the earliest Congress, the illustrious man first called to the office of Chief Executive, the jurists who first sat in this court, two of whom had borne a great part in the labors of the convention, all of whom dealt with this doubtful question, surely occupied a higher vantage ground for its correct solution than do those of our day. Here, then, is the dilemma: if the framers understood the meaning of the word "direct" in the Constitution, the practical effect which they gave to it should remain undisturbed; if they were in doubt as to the meaning, the interpretation long since authoritatively affixed to it should be upheld.
2d. Nor do I think any light is thrown upon the question of whether the tax here under consideration is direct or indirect [p643] by referring to the principle of "taxation without representation" and the great struggle of our forefathers for its enforcement. It cannot be said that the Congress which passed this act was not the representative body fixed by the Constitution. Nor can it be contended that the struggle for the enforcement of the principle involved the contention that representation should be in exact proportion to the wealth taxed. If the argument be used in order to draw the inference that, because in this instance, the indirect tax imposed will operate differently through various sections of the country, therefore that tax should be treated as direct, it seems to me it is unsound. The right to tax, and not the effects which may follow from its lawful exercise, is the only judicial question which this court is called upon to consider. If an indirect tax, which the Constitution has not subjected to the rule of apportionment, is to be held to be a direct tax because it will bear upon aggregations of property in different sections of the country, according to the extent of such aggregations, then the power is denied to Congress to do that which the Constitution authorizes, because the exercise of a lawful power is supposed to work out a result which, in the opinion of the court, was not contemplated by the fathers. If this be sound, then every question which has been determined in our past history is now still open for judicial reconstruction. The justness of tariff legislation has turned upon the assertion, on the one hand, denied on the other, that it operated unequally on the inhabitants of different sections of the country. Those who opposed such legislation have always contended that its necessary effect was not only to put the whole burden upon one section, but also to directly enrich certain of our citizens at the expense of the rest, and thus build up great fortunes to the benefit of the few and the detriment of the many. Whether this economic contention be true or untrue is not the question. Of course, I intimate no view on the subject. Will it be said that, if tomorrow the personnel of this court should be changed, it could deny the power to enact tariff legislation which has been admitted to exist in Congress from the beginning, upon the ground that such legislation beneficially affects one section or set of people [p644] to the detriment of others within the spirit of the Constitution, and therefore constitutes a direct tax?
3d. Nor, in my judgment, does any force result from the argument that the framers expected direct taxes to be rarely resorted to, and, as the present tax was imposed without public necessity, it should be declared void.
It seems to me that this statement begs the whole question, for it assumes that the act now before us levies a direct tax, whereas the question whether the tax is direct or not is the very issue involved in this case. If Congress now deems it advisable to resort to certain forms of indirect taxation which have been frequently, though not continuously, availed of in the past, I cannot see that its so doing affords any reason for converting an indirect into a direct tax in order to nullify the legislative will. The policy of any particular method of taxation, or the presence of an exigency which requires its adoption, is a purely legislative question. It seems to me that it violates the elementary distinction between the two departments of the government to allow an opinion of this court upon the necessity or expediency of a tax to affect or control our determination of the existence of the power to impose it.
But I pass from these considerations to approach the question whether the inclusion of rentals from real estate in an income tax renders such a tax to that extent "direct" under the Constitution, because it constitutes the imposition of a direct tax on the land itself.
Does the inclusion of the rentals from real estate in the sum going to make up the aggregate income from which (in order to arrive at taxable income) is to be deducted insurance, repairs, losses in business, and four thousand dollars exemption, make the tax on income so ascertained a direct tax on such real estate?
In answering this question, we must necessarily accept the interpretation of the word "direct" authoritatively given by the history of the government and the decisions of this court just cited. To adopt that interpretation for the general purposes of an income tax, and then repudiate it because of one of the elements of which it is composed, would violate every [p645] elementary rule of construction. So also, to seemingly accept that interpretation and then resort to the framers and the economists in order to limit its application and give it a different significance is equivalent to its destruction, and amounts to repudiating it without directly doing so. Under the settled interpretation of the word, we ascertain whether a tax be direct or not by considering whether it is a tax on land or a capitation tax. And the tax on land, to be within the provision for apportionment, must be direct. Therefore we have two things to take into account: is it a tax on land, and is it direct thereon or so immediately on the land as to be equivalent to a direct levy upon it? To say that any burden on land, even though indirect, must be apportioned is not only to incorporate a new provision in the Constitution, but is also to obliterate all the decisions to which I have referred by construing them as holding that, although the Constitution forbids only a direct tax on land without apportionment, it must be so interpreted as to bring an indirect tax on land within its inhibition.
It is said that a tax on the rentals is a tax on the land, as if the act here under consideration imposed an immediate tax on the rentals. This statement, I submit, is a misconception of the issue. The point involved is whether a tax on net income, when such income is made up by aggregating all sources of revenue and deducting repairs, insurance, losses in business, exemptions, etc., becomes, to the extent to which real estate revenues may have entered into the gross income, a direct tax on the land itself. In other words, does that which reaches an income, and thereby reaches rentals indirectly, and reaches the land by a double indirection, amount to direct levy on the land itself? It seems to me the question, when thus accurately stated, furnishes its own negative response. Indeed, I do not see how the issue can be stated precisely and logically without making it apparent on its face that the inclusion of rental from real property in income is nothing more than an indirect tax upon the land.
It must be borne in mind that we are dealing not with the want of power in Congress to assess real estate at all; on [p646] the contrary, as I have shown at the outset, Congress has plenary power to reach real estate both directly and indirectly. If it taxes real estate directly, the Constitution commands that such direct imposition shall be apportioned. But because an excise or other indirect tax, imposed without apportionment, has an indirect effect upon real estate, no violation of the Constitution is committed, because the Constitution has left Congress untrammeled by any rule of apportionment as to indirect taxes -- imposts, duties, and excises. The opinions in the Hylton case, so often approved and reiterated, the unanimous views of the text writers, all show that a tax on land, to be direct, must be an assessment of the land itself, either by quantity or valuation. Here there is no such assessment. It is well also to bear in mind, in considering whether the tax is direct on the land, the fact that, if land yields no rental, it contributes nothing to the income. If it is vacant, the law does not force the owner to add the rental value to his taxable income. And so it is if he occupies it himself.
The citation made by counsel from Coke on Littleton, upon which so much stress is laid, seems to me to have no relevancy. The fact that, where one delivers or agrees to give or transfer land with all the fruits and revenues, it will be presumed to be a conveyance of the land in no way supports the proposition that an indirect tax on the rental of land is a direct burden on the land itself.
Nor can I see the application of Brown v. Maryland, 1 Wheat. 419; Weston v. Charleston, 2 Pet. 449; Dobbins v. Erie County Commissioners, 16 Pet. 435; Almy v. California, 24 How. 169; Cook v. Pennsylvania, 97 U.S. 566; Railroad Co. v. Jackson, 7 Wall. 262; Philadelphia &c. Steamship Co. v. Pennsylvania, 122 U.S. 326; Leloup v. Mobile, 127 U.S. 640; Postal Telegraph Co. v. Adams, 155 U.S. 688. All these cases involve the question whether, under the Constitution, if no power existed to tax at all, either directly or indirectly, an indirect tax would be unconstitutional. These cases would be apposite to this if Congress had no power to tax real estate. Were such the case, it might be that the imposition of an excise by Congress which reached real estate indirectly would [p647] necessarily violate the Constitution, because as it had no power in the premises, every attempt to tax directly or indirectly would be null. Here, on the contrary, it is not denied that the power to tax exists in Congress, but the question is, is the tax direct or indirect in the constitutional sense?
But it is unnecessary to follow the argument further, for, if I understand the opinions of this court already referred to, they absolutely settle the proposition that an inclusion of the rentals of real estate in an income tax does not violate the Constitution. At the risk of repetition, I propose to go over he cases again for the purpose of demonstrating this. In doing so, let it be understood at the outset that I do not question the authority of Cohens v. Virginia or Carroll v. Lessee of Carroll, or any other of the cases referred to in argument of counsel. These great opinions hold that an adjudication need not be extended beyond the principles which it decides. Whilst conceding this, it is submitted that, if decided cases do directly, affirmatively, and necessarily, in principle, adjudicate the very question here involved, then, under the very text of the opinions referred to by the court, they should conclude this question. In the first case, that of Hylton, is there any possibility by the subtlest ingenuity to reconcile the decision here announced with what was there established?
In the second case, Insurance Company v. Soule, the levy was upon the company, its premiums, its dividends, and net gains from all sources. The case was certified to this court, and the statement made by the judges in explanation of the question which they propounded says: "The amount of said premiums, dividends, and net gains were truly stated in said lists or returns." Original Record, p. 27.
It will thus be seen that the issue there presented was not whether an income tax on business gains was valid, but whether an income tax on gains from business and all other net gains was constitutional. Under this state of facts, the question put to the court was:
Whether the taxes paid by the plaintiff, and sought to be recovered back in this action, are not direct taxes within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States. [p648]
This tax covered revenue of every possible nature, and it therefore appears self-evident that the court could not have upheld the statute without deciding that the income derived from realty, as well as that derived from every other source, might be taxed without apportionment. It is obvious that, if the court had considered that any particular subject matter which the statute reached was not constitutionally included, it would have been obliged by every rule of safe judicial conduct to qualify its answer as to this particular subject.
It is impossible for me to conceive that the court did not embrace in its ruling the constitutionality of an income tax which included rentals from real estate, since, without passing upon that question, it could not have decided the issue presented. And another reason why it is logically impossible that this question of the validity of the inclusion of the rental of real estate in an income tax could have been overlooked by the court is found in the fact to which I could have already adverted, that this was one of the principal points urged upon its attention, and the argument covered all the ground which has been occupied here -- indeed, the very citation from Coke upon Littleton now urged as conclusive was there made also in the brief of counsel. And although the return of income involved in that case was made "in block," the very fact that the burden of the argument was that to include rentals from real estate in income subject to taxation made such tax pro tanto direct seems to me to indicate that such rentals had entered into the return made by the corporation.
Again, in the case of Scholey v. Rew, the tax in question was laid directly on the right to take real estate by inheritance, a right which the United States had no power to control. The case could not have been decided, in any point of view, without holding a tax upon that right was not direct, and that, therefore, it could be levied without apportionment. It is manifest that the court could not have overlooked the question whether this was a direct tax on the land or not, because, in the argument of counsel, it was said, if there was any tax in the world that was a tax on real estate which was [p649] direct, that was the one. The court said it was not, and sustained the law. I repeat that the tax there was put directly upon the right to inherit, which Congress had no power to regulate or control. The case was therefore greatly stronger than that here presented, for Congress has a right to tax real estate directly with apportionment. That decision cannot be explained away by saying that the court overlooked the fact that Congress had no power to tax the devolution of real estate, and treated it as a tax on such devolution. Will it be said of the distinguished men who then adorned this bench that, although the argument was pressed upon them that this tax was levied directly on the real estate, they ignored the elementary principle that the control of the inheritance of realty is a state, and not a Federal, function? But even if the case proceeded upon the theory that the tax was on the devolution of the real estate, and was therefore not direct, is it not absolutely decisive of this controversy? If to put a burden of taxation on the right to take real estate by inheritance reaches realty only by indirection, how can it be said that a tax on the income, the result of all sources of revenue, including rentals, after deducting losses and expenses, which thus reaches the rentals indirectly, and the real estate indirectly through the rentals, is a direct tax on the real estate itself?
So it is manifest in the Springer case that the same question was necessarily decided. It seems obvious that the court intended in that case to decide the whole question, including the right to tax rental from real estate without apportionment. It was elaborately and carefully argued there that, as the law included the rentals of land in the income taxed, and such inclusion was unconstitutional, this, therefore, destroyed that part of the law which imposed the tax on the revenues of personal property. Will it be said, in view of the fact that, in this very case, four of the judges of this court think that the inclusion of the rentals from real estate in an income tax renders the whole law invalid, that the question of the inclusion of rentals was of no moment there, because the return there did not contain a mention of such rentals? Were [p650] the great judges who then composed this court so neglectful that they did not see the importance of a question which is now considered by some of its members so vital that the result in their opinion is to annul the whole law, more especially when that question was pressed upon the court in argument with all possible vigor and earnestness? But I think that the opinion in the Springer case clearly shows that the court did consider this question of importance, that it did intend to pass upon it, and that it deemed that it had decided all the questions affecting the validity of an income tax in passing upon the main issue, which included the others as the greater includes the less.
I can discover no principle upon which these cases can be considered as any less conclusive of the right to include rentals of land in the concrete result, income, than they are as to the right to levy a general income tax. Certainly the decisions which hold that an income tax, as such, is not direct decide on principle that to include the rentals of real estate in an income tax does not make it direct. If embracing rentals in income makes a tax on income to that extent a direct tax on the land, then the same word in the same sentence of the Constitution has two wholly distinct constitutional meanings, and signifies one thing when applied to an income tax generally and a different thing when applied to the portion of such a tax made up in part of rentals. That is to say, the word means one thing when applied to the greater and another when applied to the lesser tax.
My inability to agree with the court in the conclusions which it has just expressed causes me much regret. Great as is my respect for any view by it announced, I cannot resist the conviction that its opinion and decree in this case virtually annuls its previous decisions in regard to the powers of Congress on the subject of taxation, and is therefore fraught with danger to the court, to each and every citizen, and to the republic. The conservation and orderly development of our institutions rests on our acceptance of the results of the past and their use as lights to guide our steps in the future. Teach the lesson that settled principles may be overthrown [p651] at any time, and confusion and turmoil must ultimately result. In the discharge of its function of interpreting the Constitution, this court exercises an august power. It sits removed from the contentions of political parties and the animosities of factions. It seems to me that the accomplishment of its lofty mission can only be secured by the stability of its teachings and the sanctity which surrounds them. If the permanency of its conclusions is to depend upon the personal opinions of those who, from time to time, may make up its membership, it will inevitably become a theatre of political strife, and its action will be without coherence or consistency. There is no great principle of our constitutional law, such as the nature and extent of the commerce power, or the currency power, or other powers of the Federal government, which has not been ultimately defined by the adjudications of this court after long and earnest struggle. If we are to go back to the original sources of our political system, or are to appeal to the writings of the economists in order to unsettle all these great principles, everything is lost and nothing saved to the people. The rights of every individual are guaranteed by the safeguards which have been thrown around them by our adjudications. If these are to be assailed and overthrown, as is the settled law of income taxation by this opinion, as I understand it, the rights of property, so far as the Federal Constitution is concerned, are of little worth. My strong convictions forbid that I take part in a conclusion which seems to me so full of peril to the country. I am unwilling to do so without reference to the question of what my personal opinion upon the subject might be if the question were a new one, and was thus unaffected by the action of the framers, the history of the government, and the long line of decisions by this court. The wisdom of our forefathers in adopting a written Constitution has often been impeached upon the theory that the interpretation of a written instrument did not afford as complete protection to liberty as would be enjoyed under a Constitution made up of the traditions of a free people. Writing, it has been said, does not insure greater stability than tradition does, while it [p652] destroys flexibility. The answer has always been that, by the foresight of the fathers, the construction of our written Constitution was ultimately confided to this body, which, from the nature of its judicial structure, could always be relied upon to act with perfect freedom from the influence of faction and to preserve the benefits of consistent interpretation. The fundamental conception of a judicial body is that of one hedged about by precedents which are binding on the court without regard to the personality of its members. Break down this belief in judicial continuity, and let it be felt that, on great constitutional questions, this court is to depart from the settled conclusions of its predecessors and to determine them all according to the mere opinion of those who temporarily fill its bench, and our Constitution will, in my judgment, be bereft of value, and become a most dangerous instrument to the rights and liberties of the people.
In regard to the right to include in an income tax the interest upon the bonds of municipal corporations, I think the decisions of this court holding that the Federal government is without power to tax the agencies of the state government embrace such bonds, and that this settled line of authority is conclusive upon my judgment here. It determines the question that, where there is no power to tax for any purpose whatever, no direct or indirect tax can be imposed. The authorities cited in the opinion are decisive of this question. They are relevant to one case and not to the other because, in the one case, there is full power in the Federal government to tax, the only controversy being whether the tax imposed is direct or indirect, while, in the other, there is no power whatever in the Federal government, and therefore the levy, whether direct or indirect, is beyond the taxing power.
Mr. Justice Harlan authorizes me to say that he concurs in the views herein expressed.