Decline of the Forbidden Subject Matter Test.

The Su- preme Court has restored to Congress the power to tax most of the subject matter which had previously been withdrawn from its reach by judicial decision. The holding of Evans v. Gore540 and Miles v. Graham541 that the inclusion of the salaries received by federal judges in measuring the liability for a nondiscriminatory income tax violated the constitutional mandate that the compensation of such judges should not be diminished during their continuance in office was repudiated in O’Malley v. Woodrough.542 The specific ruling of Collector v. Day543 that the salary of a state officer is immune to federal income taxation also has been overruled.544 But the principle underlying that decision—that Congress may not lay a tax that would impair the sovereignty of the states—is still recognized as retaining some vitality.545

Footnotes

540
253 U.S. 245 (1920). [Back to text]
541
268 U.S. 501 (1925). [Back to text]
542
307 U.S. 277 (1939). [Back to text]
543
78 U.S. (11 Wall.) 113 (1871). [Back to text]
544
Graves v. New York ex rel. O’Keefe, 306 U.S. 466 (1939). Collector v. Day was decided in 1871 while the country was still in the throes of Reconstruction. As noted by Chief Justice Stone in a footnote to his opinion in Helvering v. Gerhardt, 304 U.S. 405, 414 n.4 (1938), the Court had not determined how far the Civil War Amendments had broadened the federal power at the expense of the states, but the fact that the taxing power had recently been used with destructive effect upon notes issued by the state banks, Veazie Bank v. Fenno, 75 U.S. (8 Wall.) 533 (1869), suggested the possibility of similar attacks upon the existence of the states themselves. Two years later, the Court took the logical step of holding that the federal income tax could not be imposed on income received by a municipal corporation from its investments. United States v. Railroad Co., 84 U.S. (17 Wall.) 322 (1873). A far-reaching extension of private immunity was granted in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co., 157 U.S. 429 (1895), where interest received by a private investor on state or municipal bonds was held to be exempt from federal taxation. (Though relegated to virtual desuetude, Pollock was not expressly overruled until South Carolina v. Baker, 485 U.S. 505 (1988)). As the apprehension of this era subsided, the doctrine of these cases was pushed into the background. It never received the same wide application as did McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316 (1819), in curbing the power of the states to tax operations or instrumentalities of the Federal Government. Only once since the turn of the century has the national taxing power been further narrowed in the name of dual federalism. In 1931 the Court held that a federal excise tax was inapplicable to the manufacture and sale to a municipal corporation of equipment for its police force. Indian Motorcycle v. United States, 283 U.S. 570 (1931). Justices Stone and Brandeis dissented from this decision, and it is doubtful whether it would be followed today. Cf. Massachusetts v. United States, 435 U.S. 444 (1978). [Back to text]
545
At least, if the various opinions in New York v. United States, 326 U.S. 572 (1946), retain force, and they may in view of (a later) New York v. United States, 505 U.S. 144 (1992), a Commerce Clause case rather than a tax case. [Back to text]