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.
The power of the state to classify for purposes of taxation is “of wide range and flexibility.” 1 A state may adjust its taxing system in such a way as to favor certain industries or forms of industry2 and may tax different types of taxpayers differently, despite the fact that they compete.3 It does not follow, however, that because “some degree of inequality from the nature of things must be permitted, gross inequality must also be allowed.” 4 Classification may not be arbitrary. It must be based on a real and substantial difference5 and the difference need not be great or conspicuous,6 but there must be no discrimination in favor of one as against another of the same class.7 Also, discriminations of an unusual character are scrutinized with special care.8 A gross sales tax graduated at increasing rates with the volume of sales,9 a heavier license tax on each unit in a chain of stores where the owner has stores located in more than one country,10 and a gross receipts tax levied on corporations operating taxicabs, but not on individuals,11 have been held to be a repugnant to the Equal Protection Clause. But it is not the function of the Court to consider the propriety or justness of the tax, to seek for the motives and criticize the public policy which prompted the adoption of the statute.12 If the evident intent and general operation of the tax legislation is to adjust the burden with a fair and reasonable degree of equality, the constitutional requirement is satisfied.13
One not within the class claimed to be discriminated against cannot challenge the constitutionality of a statute on the ground that it denies equal protection of the law.14 If a tax applies to a class that may be separately taxed, those within the class may not complain because the class might have been more aptly defined or because others, not of the class, are taxed improperly.15
- Louisville Gas Co. v. Coleman, 227 U.S. 32, 37 (1928). Classifications for purpose of taxation have been held valid in the following situations:
Banks: a heavier tax on banks which make loans mainly from money of depositors than on other financial institutions which make loans mainly from money supplied otherwise than by deposits. First Nat’l Bank v. Tax Comm’n, 289 U.S. 60 (1933).
Bank deposits: a tax of 50 cents per $100 on deposits in banks outside a state in contrast with a rate of 10 cents per $100 on deposits in the state. Madden v. Kentucky, 309 U.S. 83 (1940).
Coal: a tax of 2 ½ percent on anthracite but not on bituminous coal. Heisler v. Thomas Colliery Co., 260 U.S. 245 (1922).
Gasoline: a graduated severance tax on oils sold primarily for their gasoline content, measured by resort to Baume gravity. Ohio Oil Co. v. Conway, 281 U.S. 146 (1930); Exxon Corp. v. Eagerton, 462 U.S. 176 (1983) (prohibition on pass-through to consumers of oil and gas severance tax).
Chain stores: a privilege tax graduated according to the number of stores maintained, Tax Comm’rs v. Jackson, 283 U.S. 527 (1931); Fox v. Standard Oil Co., 294 U.S. 87 (1935); a license tax based on the number of stores both within and without the state, Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. v. Grosjean, 301 U.S. 412 (1937) (distinguishing Louis K. Liggett Co. v. Lee, 288 U.S. 517 (1933)).
Electricity: municipal systems may be exempted, Puget Sound Co. v. Seattle, 291 U.S. 619 (1934); that portion of electricity produced which is used for pumping water for irrigating lands may be exempted, Utah Power & Light Co. v. Pfost, 286 U.S. 165 (1932).
Gambling: slot machines on excursion riverboats are taxed at a maximum rate of 20 percent, while slot machines at a racetrack are taxed at a maximum rate of 36 percent. Fitzgerald v. Racing Ass’n of Central Iowa, 539 U.S. 103 (2003).
Insurance companies: license tax measured by gross receipts upon domestic life insurance companies from which fraternal societies having lodge organizations and insuring lives of members only are exempt, and similar foreign corporations are subject to a fixed and comparatively slight fee for the privilege of doing local business of the same kind. Northwestern Life Ins. Co. v. Wisconsin, 247 U.S. 132 (1918).
Oleomargarine: classified separately from butter. Magnano Co. v. Hamilton, 292 U.S. 40 (1934).
Peddlers: classified separately from other vendors. Caskey Baking Co. v. Virginia, 313 U.S. 117 (1941).
Public utilities: a gross receipts tax at a higher rate for railroads than for other public utilities, Ohio Tax Cases, 232 U.S. 576 (1914); a gasoline storage tax which places a heavier burden upon railroads than upon common carriers by bus, Nashville C. & St. L. Ry. v. Wallace, 288 U.S. 249 (1933); a tax on railroads measured by gross earnings from local operations, as applied to a railroad which received a larger net income than others from the local activity of renting, and borrowing cars, Illinois Cent. R.R. v. Minnesota, 309 U.S. 157 (1940); a gross receipts tax applicable only to public utilities, including carriers, the proceeds of which are used for relieving the unemployed, New York Rapid Transit Corp. v. New York, 303 U.S. 573 (1938).
Wine: exemption of wine from grapes grown in the State while in the hands of the producer, Cox v. Texas, 202 U.S. 446 (1906).
Laws imposing miscellaneous license fees have been upheld as follows:
Cigarette dealers: taxing retailers and not wholesalers. Cook v. Marshall County, 196 U.S. 261 (1905).
Commission merchants: requirements that dealers in farm products on commission procure a license, Payne v. Kansas, 248 U.S. 112 (1918).
Elevators and warehouses: license limited to certain elevators and warehouses on right-of-way of railroad, Cargill Co. v. Minnesota, 180 U.S. 452 (1901); a license tax applicable only to commercial warehouses where no other commercial warehousing facilities in township subject to tax, Independent Warehouses v. Scheele, 331 U.S. 70 (1947).
Laundries: exemption from license tax of steam laundries and women engaged in the laundry business where not more than two women are employed. Quong Wing v. Kirkendall, 223 U.S. 59 (1912).
Merchants: exemption from license tax measured by amount of purchases, of manufacturers within the state selling their own product. Armour & Co. v. Virginia, 246 U.S. 1 (1918).
Sugar refineries: exemption from license applicable to refiners of sugar and molasses of planters and farmers grinding and refining their own sugar and molasses. American Sugar Refining Co. v. Louisiana, 179 U.S. 89 (1900).
Theaters: license graded according to price of admission. Metropolis Theatre Co. v. Chicago, 228 U.S. 61 (1913).
Wholesalers of oil: occupation tax on wholesalers in oil not applicable to wholesalers in other products. Southwestern Oil Co. v. Texas, 217 U.S. 114 (1910).
- Quong Wing v. Kirkendall, 223 U.S. 59, 62 (1912). See also Hammond Packing Co. v. Montana, 233 U.S. 331 (1914); Allied Stores of Ohio v. Bowers, 358 U.S. 522 (1959); Fitzgerald v. Racing Ass’n of Central Iowa, 539 U.S. 103 (2003).
- Puget Sound Co. v. Seattle, 291 U.S. 619, 625 (1934). See City of Pittsburgh v. Alco Parking Corp., 417 U.S. 369 (1974).
- Colgate v. Harvey, 296 U.S. 404, 422 (1935).
- Southern Ry. v. Greene, 216 U.S. 400, 417 (1910); Quaker City Cab Co. v. Pennsylvania, 277 U.S. 389, 400 (1928).
- Keeney v. New York, 222 U.S. 525, 536 (1912); Tax Comm’rs v. Jackson, 283 U.S. 527, 538 (1931).
- Giozza v. Tiernan, 148 U.S. 657, 662 (1893).
- Louisville Gas Co. v. Coleman, 227 U.S. 32, 37 (1928). See also Bell’s Gap R.R. v. Pennsylvania, 134 U.S. 232, 237 (1890).
- Stewart Dry Goods Co. v. Lewis, 294 U.S. 550 (1935). See also Valentine v. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., 299 U.S. 32 (1936).
- Louis K. Liggett Co. v. Lee, 288 U.S. 517 (1933).
- Quaker City Cab Co. v. Pennsylvania, 277 U.S. 389 (1928). This case was formally overruled in Lehnhausen v. Lake Shore Auto Parts Co., 410 U.S. 356 (1973).
- Tax Comm’rs v. Jackson, 283 U.S. 527, 537 (1931).
- Colgate v. Harvey, 296 U.S. 404, 422 (1935).
- Darnell v. Indiana, 226 U.S. 390, 398 (1912); Farmers Bank v. Minnesota, 232 U.S. 516, 531 (1914).
- Morf v. Bingaman, 298 U.S. 407, 413 (1936).