No. 586.

166 U.S. 171 (1897)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided March 15, 1897.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. Lawrence Maxwell, Jr., for appellant. Mr. Clarence A. Seward, Mr. James C. Carter and Mr. Frank H. Platt were on the brief.

Mr. William J. Hendrick for appellee.

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

Section 4077 of the compilation of the Kentucky statutes of 1894 provides that each of the enumerated companies or corporations; "every other like company, corporation or association"; and also "every other corporation, company or association having or exercising any special or exclusive privilege or franchise not allowed by law to natural persons, or performing any public service, shall, in addition to the other taxes imposed on it by law, annually pay a tax on its franchise to the State, and a local tax thereon to the county, incorporated city, town and taxing district, where its franchise may be exercised"; and in the succeeding sections the words "franchise," "franchises" and "corporate franchise" are used. But taking the whole act together, and in view of the provisions of sections 4078, 4079, 4080 and 4081, we agree with the Circuit Court that it is evident that the word "franchise" was not employed in a technical sense, and that the legislative intention is plain that the entire property, tangible and intangible, of all foreign and domestic corporations, and all foreign and domestic companies possessing no franchise, should be valued as an entirety, the value of the tangible property be deducted, and the value of the intangible property thus ascertained be taxed under these provisions; and as to railroad, telegraph, telephone, express, sleeping car, etc., companies, whose lines extend beyond the limits of the State, that their intangible property should be assessed on the basis of the mileage of their lines within and without the State.

But from the valuation on the mileage basis the value of all tangible property is deducted before the taxation is applied.

So far as the commerce clause and the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution are concerned, this scheme of taxation is not in contravention thereof, as already determined in Adams Express Co. v. Ohio State Auditor, 165 U.S. 194, and cases cited.

And considered as a property tax, as in our opinion the prescribed exaction must be held to be, we regard it as in harmony with the provisions of the constitution of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The property, tangible and intangible, owned by corporations is subjected to like taxation, and so is the tangible and intangible property of individuals associated together in companies, and while the provisions of sections 4077 and 4078 do not apply to all individual taxpayers, yet reference to section 4020 and the schedule which must be returned by each taxpayer, as required by section 4058, demonstrates that individual taxpayers are also subjected to taxation on all their intangible property, whatever that may be, as well as on all their tangible property. As pointed out by the Circuit Court, the mode of the assessment of the intangible property of companies, corporations and associations mentioned in section 4077 and that of individual taxpayers is different, and the intangible property of such corporations, companies and associations may in some respects differ from the intangible property belonging to individual taxpayers, but there is nothing in the statute which exempts any intangible property owned by any corporation, company or individual taxpayer from taxation, or discriminates between them.

Section 174 of the constitution of Kentucky provides that "all property, whether owned by natural persons or corporations, shall be taxed in proportion to its value, unless exempted by this constitution; and all corporate property shall pay the same rate of taxation paid by individual property. Nothing in this constitution shall be construed to prevent the general assembly from providing for taxation based on income, licenses or franchises."

But this does not prevent intangible property from being taxed, and the tax mentioned in section 4077 is not an additional tax upon the same property, but on intangible property which has not been taxed as tangible property.

We concur with the views of the Circuit Court that neither section 172 of the constitution nor any other section confines "the levy of an ad valorem tax to tangible property; but, as decided by the Kentucky Court of Appeals in Levi v. Louisville, 30 S.W. Rep. 973, it does require the levy of an ad valorem tax upon personal property as well as upon real estate, and this case decides that a license tax which is not a property tax cannot be substituted for an ad valorem tax upon personal property engaged in certain commercial pursuits in the city of Louisville. It does not decide that section 171 of the constitution, which declares that taxation shall be uniform upon all property subject to taxation within the territorial limits of the authority levying the tax, applies to taxation based upon income, license or franchise. If there is any intimation upon the subject in this case, it is that taxation which is based upon income, license or franchise may be classified by the legislature; and as to licenses, they may be levied upon some employments and occupations and not upon others. If, however, we are correct in our construction of the Kentucky statutes, there is no ground for contending that there is a want of uniformity in the levy of the taxes against the defendant, even though section 171, requiring uniformity of taxation upon all property subject to taxation, applies to taxation based upon income, license or franchise, and is given its broadest possible construction."

The act received consideration in Henderson Bridge Co. v. Commonwealth, 31 S.W. Rep. 486, and the Court of Appeals of Kentucky, speaking through Grace, J., said:

"Thus we see what a varied meaning this term `capital stock' may have. So that it becomes necessary to examine and see what was the object and meaning of the legislature when using this term in the clause before quoted from section 4079 of our statutes. In this examination it becomes important to notice those clauses of the constitution in reference to revenue and taxation, and see what was contemplated and enjoined by that instrument in reference to taxation. Section 172 provides: `That all property not exempt from taxation, by this constitution, shall be assessed at its fair cash value, estimated at the price it would bring at a fair voluntary sale.' ... Section 174 provides: `That all property, whether owned by natural persons or by corporations, shall be taxed in proportion to its value, unless exempted by this constitution, and all corporate property shall pay the same rate of taxation paid by individual property. Nothing in this constitution shall be construed to prevent the General Assembly from providing for taxation, based on income, licenses or franchises.'

"Thus it is manifest that what the constitution intended to be taxed was property, — all property; and, as to corporations, not only all tangible property, but that it intended to leave the legislature of the State free to tax the franchises of corporations if it so desired; that the property of a corporation should be taxed as the property of an individual. It will be observed that in these several sections quoted, `capital stock,' `stock' and `shares of stock' are not mentioned as being appropriate terms to designate the subjects of taxation, but it says `property,' `all property,' etc., so that there might be no confusion as to what that instrument intended. Neither is there any reason to suspect that the legislature did not understand the language and meaning of the constitution when it came to frame the revenue laws of the State under it now under consideration. Neither is there reason to suspect that it did not intend and endeavor in good faith to carry into effect the intent and meaning of the constitution. So that we may safely interpret all words and phrases (of doubtful and uncertain meaning) in accordance with and so as to effectuate and carry out that intent."

The statute thus construed cannot be overthrown for failure to conform to the requirements of sections 171, 172 and 174 of the state constitution.

Decree affirmed.


In its ultimate analysis the legal principles by which this case should, in our opinion, be controlled are those which were by us deemed decisive in Adams Express Co. v. Ohio, 165 U.S. 194, 229. It follows that the reasons for our dissent stated in that case are pertinent to this, and we reiterate them as expressing the grounds for our dissent from the conclusions reached by the court in this case. The facts here, however, so pointedly exemplify the force of the reasons for our dissent in that case that we briefly state them. The actual value of all the tangible property owned by the express company in Kentucky was $36,614.53. This property was assessed by the local authorities for that amount and the taxes duly paid. In addition, the value of the franchise was assessed at $1,463,040, a disproportion enormously in excess of the amount imposed by the State of Ohio, great as was that disproportion. The operation of the tax is additionally illustrated by a further fact. The tax imposed in Ohio and held to be valid in Adams Express Co. v. Ohio, considered with reference to the routes travelled by the agents of the express company, was at the rate of $250 per mile, whilst in this case the tax levied is at the rate of $764 per mile.

Although the fundamental legal principles which, in our opinion, should have controlled Adams Express Co. v. Ohio are the same in this case, there are yet material differences between the Kentucky and the Ohio statutes, which we think should take this case out of the ruling in the former case, even conceding that case to have been correctly decided. The tax here levied is a franchise tax. This is fully demonstrated by the dissenting opinion in Henderson Bridge Co. v. Kentucky, this day decided, ante, 155. The levy here sought to be sustained, then, is a franchise tax, assessed on a joint stock company which has no franchise, for the bill alleges that the express company is a partnership and the demurrer concedes it. Under this state of law and fact, therefore, the effect of holding the tax now in question valid, is to decide that a franchise can be taxed, when there is no franchise on which to levy the tax. This can only be escaped by contending that the right of the express company to do interstate commerce business in Kentucky, resulted from the assent of the State, and therefore the doing of such business was equivalent to accepting a franchise from the State. But to announce this proposition would overthrow the settled rule so necessary for the perpetuity of our institutions and the free intercourse between the States, that the right to transact interstate commerce business by a person or corporation is protected by the Constitution of the United States, and does not depend upon the mere grace of one of the States of the Union.

In addition to the clear distinctions, already noted, between Adams Express Co. v. Ohio and this case, there are others resulting from the difference between the Ohio and the Kentucky statutes. The Ohio statute considered in Adams Express Co. v. Ohio purported only to tax the tangible property within the State, but empowered the assessing board to consider its value as augmented by the use to which such property might be put. In other words, the Ohio law, as construed by the Supreme Court of the State, taxed only tangible property within the State enhanced in value by intangible elements outside the State. We considered, in dissenting in the Ohio case, that this was a mere disguise, a distinction without a difference, but the court held otherwise. In this case, by the law in question, the mask is thrown off, and what we conceive to be logically the thin disguise under which the courts of Ohio supported its statute is not asserted to exist, but the Kentucky statute, in unambiguous and unmistakable language, imposes the imperative duty upon the assessing board to assess property both in and out of the State. That is to say, it leaves nothing to implication or to evasion, but declares in plain English that property in and out of the State shall be assessed.


1. The docket title of this case is Levi C. Weir, President of the Adams Express Company, Appellant v. L.C. Norman, Auditor of Public Accounts for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.


1000 Characters Remaining reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

User Comments

Listed below are the cases that are cited in this Featured Case. Click the citation to see the full text of the cited case. Citations are also linked in the body of the Featured Case.

Cited Cases

  • No Cases Found

Listed below are those cases in which this Featured Case is cited. Click on the case name to see the full text of the citing case.

Citing Cases