This case is here on appeal, Jud. Code § 237, from a judgment of the Supreme Court of California, denying
The State Franchise Tax Commissioner, in assessing appellant's franchise tax for the year 1928, included in its gross income interest derived from improvement district bonds, issued after the adoption of the quoted exemption provision of the Constitution, but before the constitutional amendment and the statute authorizing the tax. The present suit was brought to recover so much of the tax as results from the inclusion in the computation, of the interest received from the tax-exempt bonds. Appellant insists that, under the exemption clause of the State Constitution, it acquired a contractual immunity from state taxation of the bonds or their income, and that the later statute, by authorizing the inclusion of the bond interest in the measure of the tax, in effect taxed the income and thus impaired the obligation of the contract.
Until the article of the Constitution adopted in 1928, and the statute of 1929, there were no provisions in the Constitution and laws of California for taxing corporate franchises by the present method, and until this case no decision by any court of the state had determined whether the granted immunity extends to a tax upon corporate franchises because tax-free property or income is included in its measure. Long before the adoption of the constitutional exemption, there was a well-recognized distinction between a tax on the privilege of exercising the corporate franchise and a tax on corporate property or income, even though the former was measured by the latter, and tax immunity of the property or income was not deemed to extend to the franchise.
The power of a state to levy a franchise tax measured by net property or income including tax-exempt bonds of the United States or their income was upheld by this Court in Society for Savings v. Coite (1868), 6 Wall. 594; Provident Institution v. Massachusetts (1868), 6 Wall. 611; Home Insurance Co. v. New York (1890), 134 U.S. 594. State laws taxing shareholders of national banks on the full net value of their shares, although the banks own tax-exempt federal securities, have also been consistently upheld. Van Allen v. Assessors, 3 Wall. 573; Peoples National Bank v. Board of Equalization, 260 U.S. 702; Des Moines National Bank v. Fairweather, 263 U.S. 103.
This distinction, so often and consistently reaffirmed, is but a recognition that the franchise, the privilege of doing business in corporate form, which is a legitimate subject of taxation, does not cease to be such because it is exercised in the acquisition and enjoyment of non-taxables. The distinction is one of substance, not of form, and has been so recently discussed in Educational Films Corp. v. Ward that it need not be elaborated here. It suffices to say that the tax immunity extended to property qua property does not embrace a special privilege, the corporate franchise, otherwise taxable, merely because the value of the corporate property or net income is included in an equable measure of the enjoyment of the privilege. The owner may enjoy his exempt property free of tax, but if he asks and receives from the state the benefit of a taxable privilege as the implement of that enjoyment, he must bear the burden of the tax which the state exacts as its price.
Appellant lays no foundation for the assertion that the state court erroneously construed the grant of immunity as limited to taxes imposed on the bonds and their interest, and as not embracing taxes on the franchise measured by the net income of the taxpayer without discrimination as to its source. We cannot say that this construction, with which no judicial decision of the
But appellant insists that even though the granted exemption is not broad enough to preclude, in every instance, the inclusion of tax-exempt income in the measure of the tax, its inclusion by the present statute is not a casual incident to a scheme of taxation of franchises measured by all net income, such as was upheld in Flint v. Stone Tracy Co., supra, but is the result of a fully disclosed legislative purpose to subject to taxation the income of non-taxables, such as was deemed to invalidate the tax in Miller v. Milwaukee, 272 U.S. 713, and in Macallen Co. v. Massachusetts, supra. In support of this contention, appellant points to the language of the taxing act, specifically including the income from tax-exempt bonds in the measure of the tax, and to its legislative history.
The California Constitution was amended and the legislation taxing corporate franchises was enacted shortly after the decisions of this Court in First National Bank v. Hartford, 273 U.S. 548, and Minnesota v. First National Bank, 273 U.S. 561, which held that the requirement of R.S. § 5219, of an approximate equality of state taxation
Thus, in our dual system of government, action of the one government in the proper exercise of its sovereign powers, regarded as innocuous and permissible notwithstanding its incidental effects on the other, may become offensive and be deemed forbidden if it discriminates against the other. State taxes which, if non-discriminatory, would be upheld, even though they reach or affect those engaged in interstate commerce, are condemned if they discriminate against those so engaged, by placing on them heavier burdens than those imposed on others within the state. Welton v. Missouri, 91 U.S. 275, with which compare Wagner v. Covington, 251 U.S. 95; Darnell & Son Co. v. Memphis, 208 U.S. 113; Bethlehem Motors Corp. v. Flynt, 256 U.S. 421. Cf. Reymann Brewing Co. v. Brister, 179 U.S. 445. See General American Tank Car Corp. v. Day, 270 U.S. 367, 372.
But the present case is not one of discrimination. There is no attempt, as in Miller v. Milwaukee, supra, to measure
But it is said that the ruling of this Court in Macallen Co. v. Massachusetts, supra, requires the condemnation of the present tax. There the Commonwealth, which had long imposed a tax on corporate franchises measured by taxable income of the corporation, amended its statutes so as to add the income from tax-exempt bonds of the federal government to the measure of the tax. It was held that this change of taxation policy, embodied in the statute and "adopted as though it had been so declared in precise words for the very purpose of subjecting these securities pro tanto to the burden of the tax," was invalid. Thus the legislative abandonment of a policy which had previously discriminated in favor of tax-exempt securities was treated as a discrimination against them, and the tax, although in fact non-discriminatory, was condemned as analogous to the discriminatory tax held invalid in the Miller case. See Macallen Co. v. Massachusetts, supra, pp. 630, 631.
But the State of California, in its legislation, has indulged in no reversal of policy so far as the measurement
But we do not rest our decision upon any narrow distinction as to the precise form of words which may be employed in taxing statutes or the particular order in which its provisions are incorporated in the statute, whether by a single legislative act or by amendment or the addition of new provisions in successive reenactments. A taxing statute, like others, must be read as a whole, as it stands on the statute books at its applicable date, and the legislative purpose in enacting it must be taken, regardless of forms of words, to envisage the obvious consequences which flow from its operation. Since the mere intent of the legislature to do that which the Constitution permits cannot deprive legislation of its constitutional
MR. JUSTICE SUTHERLAND, dissenting:
MR. JUSTICE VAN DEVANTER, MR. JUSTICE BUTLER and I are unable to agree with the opinion and judgment just announced:
In Miller v. Milwaukee, 272 U.S. 713, speaking through Mr. Justice Holmes, this Court said [p. 715]:
"If the avowed purpose of self-evident operation of a statute is to follow the bonds of the United States and to make up for its inability to reach them directly by indirectly achieving the same result, the statute must fail even if but for its purpose of special operation it would be perfectly good. Under the laws of Wisconsin the income from the United States bonds may not be the only item exempted from the income tax on corporations, but it certainly is the most conspicuous instance of exemption at the present time. A result intelligently foreseen and offering the most obvious motive for an act that will bring it about, fairly may be taken to have been a purpose of the act. On that assumption the immunity of the national bonds is too important to allow any narrowing beyond what the Acts of Congress permit. We think it would be going too far to say that they allow an intentional interference that is only prevented from being direct by the artificial distinction between a corporation and its members. A tax very well may be upheld as against any
In Macallen Co. v. Massachusetts, 279 U.S. 620, the principle thus announced was applied to an act imposing a corporate excise tax affecting the state's municipal securities in the same way as the California act affects the bonds here under consideration. These municipal securities were issued and acquired prior to the passage of the act, and when so issued and acquired were exempt from all forms of taxation by the express terms of a state statute. The situation in that respect is the same here, except that the exemption from taxation was made by the state Constitution instead of by statute. There, as here, the constitutionality of the act was challenged under the federal Constitution as impairing the obligation of contract. We sustained the challenge, and pointed out that while a state was at liberty to impose a franchise tax upon a corporation with respect to the doing of its business, it could not tax the income of the corporation derived from nontaxable securities. We held that the effect of the taxing act was to repeal the prior statute and impose a burden upon the securities from which, by express provision of law, they had theretofore been free. In confirmation of this conclusion the report of a special commission appointed by the legislature to investigate the subject of taxation of banking institutions was cited and quoted. That report recommended the adoption of legislation which, by means of an excise upon the doing of business, would reach income from securities then exempt from taxation, either under federal or state law. The report received the consideration
"The effect of the report is that non-taxable bonds nevertheless should be subjected to the burden of the tax; and, since that could not be imposed directly, the clear intimation is that it be imposed indirectly through the medium of the so-called `excise'."
We therefore concluded that the act manifested a change of policy adopted with the aim and for the purpose of subjecting the tax-exempt securities, pro tanto, to the burden of the tax, and, therefore, impaired "the obligation of the statutory contract of the state by which such bonds were made exempt from state taxation."
In the present case the aim and purpose of the California legislature to reach the same illegal result by indirection is no less clear. Here, as in Massachusetts, the State Tax Commission investigated the subject and made a special report to the Governor for submission to the legislature. In the course of the report the commission expressed the opinion that the only practicable method of securing a substantial revenue from the banks was to tax them "according to or measured by net income." This was designated its "fourth method." As distinguished from the "third method" suggested, the commission said that such a tax "is designed to include within the scope of its application certain types of income which may not legally be reached by a pure net income tax — such as interest on tax-exempt government bonds. . . . The third method may be discarded in favor of the fourth, because under the fourth everything can be accomplished which may be gained by proceeding under the third, and presumably more besides, viz., the inclusion, if desired, of tax-exempt interest in the base."
Later in its report, under the heading "Importance of Including Tax-exempt Interest in Base," the commission,
"In the case of corporations other than banks, the point is not of vital importance. But the banks hold such large quantities of these tax-exempt bonds that the effect of a decision holding that the state may not include them in the base would be very serious indeed."
There is more in the report to like effect.
In January, 1929, the two houses of the state legislature gave public hearings on the subject. Among others, Professor Haig of Columbia University, who had served as technical advisor to the commission, appeared and made a statement, in the course of which, in explanation of bills then pending, he said:
"Now, as to the definition of net income. You will find this material presented in section 6 and following. In the first place, the definition of income is broad, in one respect, in that it does attempt to include within the scope of the base used as the measure of the tax income received from tax-exempt securities — that is, government bonds and so on. . . . Interest from tax-exempt bonds is an exceedingly important item in a tax which is applied to banks. The definition is broad, in that it does include this tax-exempt interest in the base which is used as a measure of the value of the franchise."
The act here in question, which resulted from, and evidently was based upon, the report of the Commission and the statements of its advisor, provides in express terms:
"Sec. 6. The term `gross income,' as herein used, includes . .. all interest received from federal, state, municipal or other bonds, . . .
"Sec. 7. The term `net income,' as herein used, means the gross income less the deductions allowed." (No deduction, however, is allowed for interest received from federal, state, municipal or other tax-exempt bonds.)
The California franchise tax, in its application to the bonds here under consideration, is peculiarly indefensible. When these bonds were issued and acquired they were, by express constitutional provision, made "free and exempt from taxation." Upon the faith of that provision the bonds were bought. The fact that they were to be free from taxation must have resulted in the receipt of a larger price than otherwise would have been the case. The difference between the sum paid and what would have been paid but for the exemption was, in a very real sense, money taken from the purchaser in exchange for the tax immunity — as though future taxes had been anticipated by an immediate payment of the amount, computed on the basis of their present worth. By every principle of fair construction, the purchaser having paid for this immunity became entitled to hold the bonds and income therefrom free from any future taxation, the burden of which, however disguised, would fall, and was meant to fall, upon them. Otherwise the contractual obligation
A tax in form laid upon A but measured by B at once suggests that B was in reality the thing aimed at; and if inquiry discloses, as it does here, that such is the fact, the tax, assuming B to be non-taxable, should not be allowed to stand in the face of the settled principle that what cannot be done directly because of constitutional restriction cannot be done indirectly by legislation designed to reach the same end. Fairbank v. United States, 181 U.S. 283, 294, 300.
It is important for the states and their municipalities to obtain revenue; but, in doing so, it is also important that they shall not dishonor their promises. The moral duty of a state to keep its word, in spirit as well as in letter, is no less than that of an individual; and courts which condemn direct impairment by legislation of contractual obligations should not be over-ready to approve the adoption of circuitous and delusive means, which in form avoid but in fact accomplish the same unconstitutional result.