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Amdt14.S1.8.10.1 Overview of Economic Regulation and Taxing Power

Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

At the outset, the Court did not regard the Equal Protection Clause as having any bearing on taxation.1 It soon, however, entertained cases assailing specific tax laws under this provision,2 and in 1890 it cautiously conceded that “clear and hostile discriminations against particular persons and classes, especially such as are of an unusual character, unknown to the practice of our governments, might be obnoxious to the constitutional prohibition.” 3 The Court observed, however, that the Equal Protection Clause “was not intended to compel the State to adopt an iron rule of equal taxation” and propounded some conclusions that remain valid today.4 In succeeding years the Clause has been invoked but sparingly to invalidate state levies. In the field of property taxation, inequality has been condemned only in two classes of cases: (1) discrimination in assessments, and (2) discrimination against foreign corporations. In addition, there are a handful of cases invalidating, because of inequality, state laws imposing income, gross receipts, sales and license taxes.

Davidson v. City of New Orleans, 96 U.S. 97, 106 (1878). back
Phila. Fire Ass’n v. New York, 119 U.S. 110 (1886); Santa Clara Cnty. v. S. Pac. R.R., 118 U.S. 394 (1886). back
Bell’s Gap R.R. v. Pennsylvania, 134 U.S. 232, 237 (1890). back
The state “may, if it chooses, exempt certain classes of property from any taxation at all, such as churches, libraries and the property of charitable institutions. It may impose different specific taxes upon different trades and professions, and may vary the rates of excise upon various products; it may tax real estate and personal property in a different manner; it may tax visible property only, and not tax securities for payment of money; it may allow deductions for indebtedness, or not allow them. All such regulations, and those of like character, so long as they proceed within reasonable limits and general usage, are within the discretion of the state legislature, or the people of the State in framing their Constitution.” 134 U.S. at 237. See Lehnhausen v. Lake Shore Auto Parts Co., 410 U.S. 356 (1973); Kahn v. Shevin, 416 U.S. 351 (1974); and City of Pittsburgh v. Alco Parking Corp., 417 U.S. 369 (1974). back