Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.


decided: December 14, 1891.



Author: Field

[ 142 U.S. Page 227]

 MR. JUSTICE FIELD, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

The tax, for the collection of which this action is brought, is an excise tax upon the defendant corporation for the privilege of exercising its franchises within the State of Maine. It is so declared in the statute which imposes it; and that a tax of this character is within the power of the State to levy there can be no question. The designation does not always indicate merely an inland imposition or duty on the consumption of commodities, but often denotes an impost for a license to pursue certain callings, or to deal in special commodities, or to exercise particular franchises. It is used more frequently, in this county, in the latter sense than in any other. The privilege

[ 142 U.S. Page 228]

     of exercising the franchises of a corporation within a State is generally one of value, and often of great value, and the subject of earnest contention. It is natural, therefore, that the corporation should be made to bear some proportion of the burdens of government. As the granting of the privilege rests entirely in the discretion of the State, whether the corporation be of domestic or foreign origin, it may be conferred upon such conditions, pecuniary or otherwise, as the State in its judgment may deem most conducive to its interests or policy. It may require the payment into its treasury, each year, of a specific sum, or may apportion the amount exacted according to the value of the business permitted, as disclosed by its gains or receipts of the present or past years. The character of the tax, or its validity, is not determined by the mode adopted in fixing its amount for any specific period or the times of its payment. The whole field of inquiry into the extent of revenue from sources at the command of the corporation, is open to the consideration of the State in determining what may be justly exacted for the privilege. The rule of apportioning the charge to the receipts of the business would seem to be eminently reasonable, and likely to produce the most satisfactory results, both to the State and the corporation taxed.

The court below held that the imposition of the taxes was a regulation of commerce, interstate and foreign, and therefore in conflict with the exclusive power of Congress in that respect; and on that ground alone it ordered judgment for the defendant. This ruling was founded upon the assumption that a reference by the statute to the transportation receipts and to a certain percentage of the same in determining the amount of the excise tax, was in effect the imposition of the tax upon such receipts, and therefore an interference with interstate and foreign commerce. But a resort to those receipts was simply to ascertain the value of the business done by the corporation, and thus obtain a guide to a reasonable conclusion as to the amount of the excise tax which should be levied; and we are unable to perceive in that resort any interference with transportation, domestic or foreign, over the road of the railroad

[ 142 U.S. Page 229]

     company, or any regulation of commerce which consists in such transportation. If the amount ascertained were specifically imposed as the tax, no objection to its validity would be pretended. And if the inquiry of the State as to the value of the privilege were limited to receipts of certain past years instead of the year in which the tax is collected, it is conceded that the validity of the tax would not be affected; and if not, we do not see how a reference to the results of any other year could affect its character. There is no levy by the statute on the receipts themselves, either in form or fact; they constitute, as said above, simply the means of ascertaining the value of the privilege conferred.

This conclusion is sustained by the decision in Home Insurance Co. v. New York, 134 U.S. 594. The Home Insurance Company was a corporation created under the laws of New York, and a portion of its capital stock was invested in bonds of the United States. By an act of the legislature of that State, of 1881, it was declared that every corporation, joint stock company or association, then or thereafter incorporated under any law of the State, or of any other State or country, and doing business in the State, with certain designated exceptions not material to the question involved, should be subject to a tax upon its corporate franchise or business, to be computed as follows: if its dividend or dividends made or declared during the year ending the first day of November, amounted to six per centum or more upon the par value of its capital stock, then the tax was to be at the rate of one-quarter mill upon the capital stock for each one per cent of the dividends. A less rate was provided where there was no dividend or a dividend less than six per cent. The purpose of the act was to fix the amount of the tax each year upon the franchise or business of the corporation by the extent of dividends upon its capital stock, or, where there were no dividends, according to the actual value of the capital stock during the year. The tax payable by the company, estimated according to its dividends, under that law aggregated seven thousand five hundred dollars. The company resisted its payment, asserting that the tax was, in fact, levied upon the capital stock of the company,

[ 142 U.S. Page 230]

     contending that there should be deducted from it a sum bearing the same ratio thereto that the amount invested in bonds of the United States bore to its capital stock, and that the law requiring a tax, without such reduction, was unconstitutional and void. It was held that the tax was not upon the capital stock of the company nor upon any bonds of the United States composing a part of that stock, but upon the corporate franchise or business of the company, and that reference was only made to its capital stock and dividends for the purpose of determining the amount of the tax to be exacted each year. And the court said: "The validity of the tax can in no way be dependent upon the mode which the State may deem fit to adopt in fixing the amount for any year which it will exact for the franchise. No constitutional objection lies in the way of a legislative body prescribing any mode of measurement to determine the amount it will charge for the privileges it bestows."

The case of Philadelphia and Southern Steamship Co. v. Pennsylvania, 122 U.S. 326, in no way conflicts with this decision. That was the case of a tax, in terms, upon the gross receipts of a steamship company, incorporated under the laws of the State, derived from the transportation of persons and property between different States and to and from foreign countries. Such tax was held, without any dissent, to be a regulation of interstate and foreign commerce, and, therefore, invalid. ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.