This appeal presents the question whether the Act of the Wisconsin Legislature of March 27, 1935, which imposed a tax on corporate dividends received by appellant in 1933 at rates different from those applicable in that year to other types of income and without deductions which were allowed in computing the tax on other income, infringes the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The statute of Wisconsin in force in 1933 and since imposes a tax on net income at graduated rates. Wisconsin Stat. 1933, c. 71. Appellant, a resident of Wisconsin, received in 1933 gross income of $13,383.26, of which $12,156.10 was dividends received from corporations whose "principal business" was "attributable to Wisconsin" within the meaning of the taxing statute. By § 71.04 (4), Wisconsin Stat. 1933,
Petitioner's income tax return was due and filed March 15, 1934. A year later c. 15 of the Laws of Wisconsin for 1935, effective March 27, 1935, laid new taxes for the years 1933 and 1934 upon various taxable subjects. Section
First. Appellant assails the statute as a denial of equal protection because the dividends which it selected for taxation as a special class were subjected ratably to a tax burden different from that borne by other types of income for the same year by reason of the fact that the dividends were taxed at a different rate from that applied to other income and were given the benefit of but a single deduction of $750, while recipients of other types of income in that year were permitted to deduct specified items of interest, taxes, business losses and donations. It is not contended that the receipt of dividends from corporations is not subject to tax, or that apart from the retroactive application of the tax they could not be included in gross income for the purpose of arriving at net taxable income, but it is insisted that disparities in the tax burdens which may result from the different rates and deductions infringe the constitutional immunity.
Wisconsin income tax legislation has from the beginning treated dividends received from corporations deriving
When in 1935 the State was confronted with the necessity of raising revenue to meet the demand for unemployment relief, and of distributing the cost among its taxpayers, the legislature found one class of untaxed income, dividends received from a specified category of corporations. It also could have concluded that a substantial part of this income had borne no tax burden at its source in the earnings of the corporations, since, by § 71.02 (3) (d), corporations are not required to pay a tax on that part of their income allocable to business carried on or property located without the State.
We think that the selection of such income for taxation at rates and with deductions not shown to be unrelated to an equitable distribution of the tax burden is not a denial of the equal protection commanded by the Fourteenth Amendment. It cannot be doubted that the receipt of dividends from a corporation is an event which may constitutionally be taxed either with or without deductions, Lynch v. Hornby, 247 U.S. 339; see Helvering v. Independent
Numerous retroactive revisions of the federal and Wisconsin revenue laws, presently to be discussed, have imposed taxes on subjects previously untaxed and shifted the burden of old taxes by changes in rates, exemptions and deductions. It has never been thought that such changes involve a denial of equal protection if the new taxes could have been included in the earlier act when adopted. If some retroactive alteration in the scheme of a tax act is permissible, as is conceded, it seems plain that validity, so far as equal protection is concerned, must be determined, as in the case of any other tax, by ascertaining whether the thing taxed falls within a distinct class which may rationally be treated differently from other classes. If such changes are forbidden in the name of equal protection, legislatures in laying new taxes would be left powerless to rectify to any extent a previous distribution of tax burdens which experience had shown to be inequitable, even though constitutional.
The bare fact that the present tax is imposed at different rates and with different deductions from those applied to other types of income does not establish unconstitutionality. It is a commonplace that the equal protection clause does not require a State to maintain rigid rules of equal taxation, to resort to close distinctions, or to maintain a precise scientific uniformity. Possible differences in tax burdens, not shown to be substantial, or which are based on discrimination not shown to be arbitrary or capricious, do not fall within the constitutional prohibition. Lawrence v. State Tax Comm'n, 286 U.S. 276, 284, 285, and cases cited.
Just what the differences are in the tax burdens cast upon the two types of income by the divergence in rates
Second. The objection chiefly urged to the taxing statute is that it is a denial of due process of law because in 1935 it imposed a tax on income received in 1933. But a tax is not necessarily unconstitutional because retroactive. Milliken v. United States, 283 U.S. 15, 21; and cases cited. Taxation is neither a penalty imposed on the taxpayer nor a liability which he assumes by contract. It is but a way of apportioning the cost of government among those who in some measure are privileged to enjoy its benefits and must bear its burdens.
In the cases in which this Court has held invalid the taxation of gifts made and completely vested before the enactment of the taxing statute, decision was rested on the ground that the nature or amount of the tax could not reasonably have been anticipated by the taxpayer at the time of the particular voluntary act which the statute later made the taxable event. Nichols v. Coolidge, 274 U.S. 531, 542; Untermeyer v. Anderson, 276 U.S. 440, 445 (citing Blodgett v. Holden, 275 U.S. 142, 147); Coolidge v. Long, 282 U.S. 582. Since, in each of these cases, the donor might freely have chosen to give or not to give, the taxation, after the choice was made, of a gift which he might well have refrained from making had he anticipated the tax, was thought to be so arbitrary and oppressive as to be a denial of due process. But there are other forms of taxation whose retroactive imposition cannot be said to be similarly offensive, because their incidence is not on the voluntary act of the taxpayer. And even a retroactive gift tax has been held valid where the donor was forewarned by the statute books of the possibility of such a levy, Milliken v. United States, supra. In each case it is necessary to consider the nature of the tax and the circumstances in which it is laid before it can be said that its retroactive application is so harsh and oppressive as to transgress the constitutional limitation.
Property taxes and benefit assessments of real estate, retroactively applied, are not open to the objection successfully urged in the gift cases. See Wagner v. Baltimore, 239 U.S. 207; Seattle v. Kelleher, 195 U.S. 351;
Assuming that a tax may attempt to reach events so far in the past as to render that objection valid, we think that no such case is presented here. For more than seventy-five years it has been the familiar legislative practice of Congress in the enactment of revenue laws to tax retroactively income or profits received during the year of the session in which the taxing statute is enacted, and in some instances during the year of the preceding session. See Untermeyer v. Anderson, supra, footnote 1. These statutes not only increased the tax burden by laying new taxes and increasing the rates of old ones or both, but they redistributed retroactively the tax burdens imposed by preexisting laws. This was notably the case with the "Revenue Act of 1918," enacted February 24, 1919, 40 Stat. 1057, and made applicable to the calendar year 1918, which cut down exemptions and deductions, increased, in varying degrees, income, excess profits and capital stock taxes, altered the basis of surtaxes, and increased in progressive ratio the rates applicable to the higher brackets. Similarly the special munition manufacturer's tax, imposed on profits derived from sales of munitions, Act of September 8, 1916, c. 463, 39 Stat. 756, 780, was applied to the twelve months ending December 31,
The equitable distribution of the costs of government through the medium of an income tax is a delicate and difficult task. In its performance experience has shown the importance of reasonable opportunity for the legislative body, in the revision of tax laws, to distribute increased costs of government among its taxpayers in the light of present need for revenue and with knowledge of the sources and amounts of the various classes of taxable income during the taxable period preceding revision. Without that opportunity accommodation of the legislative purpose to the need may be seriously obstructed if not defeated. We cannot say that the due process which the Constitution exacts denies that opportunity to legislatures; that it withholds from them, more than in the case of a prospective tax, authority to distribute the increased tax burden in the light of experience and in conformity with accepted notions of the requirements of equal protection; or that in view of well established
The Joint Resolution of Congress of July 4, 1864, No. 77, 13 Stat. 417, imposed an additional tax on incomes earned during the calendar year 1863, this tax being imposed after the taxes for the year had been paid. In Stockdale v. Insurance Companies, supra, 331, Mr. Justice Miller said of it: "The right of Congress to have imposed this tax by a new statute, although the measure of it was governed by the income of the past year, cannot be doubted. . . . no one doubted the validity of the tax or attempted to resist it." The Act of February 24, 1919, c. 18, Tit. 2, 40 Stat. 1057, 1058-1088, which taxed incomes for the calendar year 1918, was applied without question as to its constitutionality in United States v. Robbins, 269 U.S. 315, and in other cases.
In the present case the returns of income received in 1933 were filed and became available in March, 1934. Wisconsin Stat. 1933, § 71.09 (4). The next succeeding session of the legislature at which tax legislation could be considered was in 1935, when the challenged statute was passed. By § 11, Art. IV; § 4, Art. V, of the Wisconsin constitution, and § 13.02 Wisconsin Statutes, 1935, regular sessions of the legislature are held in each odd-numbered year. Special sessions of the legislature may be held on call of the governor, at which no business can be transacted "except as shall be necessary to accomplish
While the Supreme Court of Wisconsin thought that the present tax might "approach or reach the limit of permissible retroactivity," we cannot say that it exceeds it.
MR. JUSTICE ROBERTS, dissenting.
The Constitution of Wisconsin, Article VIII, § 1, provides: "Taxes may also be imposed on incomes, privileges and occupations, which taxes may be graduated and progressive, and reasonable exemptions may be provided." Pursuant to this grant, the State, since 1911,
The appellant, a resident of Wisconsin, on or about March 15, 1934, as by law required, made a return of his income for 1933 showing his gross income and took deductions for interest paid, for losses on the sale of securities, for business expenses, for charitable contributions, and for dividends received from certain corporations, with the result that no net taxable income remained. Without the deduction of the dividends his net income would have been $2,221.39.
When the Wisconsin legislature met in its regular biennial session in January 1935 it was confronted by a need for additional revenue to meet the State's obligations. The condition is referred to as an emergency because the need for additional funds grew out of the then current relief load, but the emergency was no different than if the State had found itself short of funds for the
What then did the legislature do to meet the demand for public revenue? It adopted a statute effective March 27, 1935.
Section 3 imposed an additional tax on transfers of property made up to July 1, 1937. Section 4 placed additional license fees for the year 1934 on telephone companies. Section 5 imposed an additional license fee for 1934 upon electric, gas and similar utility companies.
Section 6 imposed on the 1933 dividends, which had been deductible under the general law, a graduated tax of one per cent. on the first two thousand dollars of net dividend income, three per cent. on the next $3,000, and seven per cent. on all above $5,000. Net dividend income is defined as gross dividend income less $750. The tax
The question is whether § 6 transgresses the prohibition of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin, although stating that "While the present tax may approach or reach the limit of permissible retroactivity, it does not exceed it," sustained the statute as against challenge under the equal protection and due process clauses of the amendment.
One must ignore the realities of the situation if he approaches a decision of the case in the light of the equal protection clause as if the statute under attack were prospective in operation; or, in the light of the due process clause, as if the statute were a revision of an existing general income tax system theretofore in force. The illegal discrimination and the arbitrary character of the Act condemn it under the equal protection clause not because it selects a particular class of citizens for the imposition of the tax but because, in so doing, it reaches back and singles out for a new and wholly different sort of income tax those few only to whom a specific deduction was allowed in the general computation of their taxable income for the year 1933. It will not do to examine the classification
It readily may be conceded that Wisconsin is, and always has been, free in the imposition of an income tax, for good and sufficient reason, to treat the recipients of dividends on a basis different from the recipients of other sorts of income. The State also was free to revoke, alter, and amend the provisions for deductions as its views of fairness and policy might dictate. This case presents no such situation. After the taxpayers had returned and paid their tax under the existing system and according to the long established public policy of the State, the State sought additional revenues. Instead of levying an exaction upon the citizens generally or certain classes of citizens, the State went back and sought to tax a small class of income tax payers by reason of the purely arbitrary and adventitious fact that they had been allowed a particular deduction in a past year. It chose as the base of the tax a part of the income of the taxpayer under the law as previously in force. The previously granted deduction was not withdrawn but, on the contrary, the income represented
"In the equitable distribution of taxation persons receiving dividends in the year 1933 should not be classified less favorably than persons receiving other kinds of income that year. For the purpose of taxation the income was not materially different than the following kinds: Salaries paid officers of private corporations; salaries paid to public officials; interest; rents; profit and income of all kinds received by individuals and corporations generally, unless some good reason appeared for some legislative exception.
"The statute is also discriminatory against the class of persons receiving dividends in the year 1933 when compared with other classes of persons when such other classes are assessed at all. It discriminates in being more drastic in limiting deductions for losses, expenses and exemptions. It is more drastic in the rapid increase of the graduated rate. For some reason one class only was selected to bear the entire burden of the emergency tax in question. This class was subjected to an unusually inequitable burden."
Decisions sustaining the power of a State prospectively to classify, to grant exemptions, or otherwise to interrelate
From what has been said I think it apparent that the retroactivity of the challenged statute taken alone is not the element which condemns it any more than the attempted classification alone would condemn it if the Act were prospective in operation. The cases relied upon to support the statute, viewed in its retroactive aspect, do not meet the present case. In one of the cited cases, — United States v. Hudson, 299 U.S. 498, 500, — earlier decisions were thus summarized: "As respects income tax statutes it long has been the practice of Congress to make them retroactive for relatively short periods so as to include profits from transactions consummated while the statute was in process of enactment, or within so much of the calendar year as preceded the enactment; and repeated decisions of this Court have recognized this practice and sustained it. . .." That was a case which fell squarely within this statement of the scope of permissible retroactivity. All enactments sustained that amended the tax system of a prior year were continuations of that existing system, and the taxpayers had knowledge, before the expiration of the year of receipt of the income by which the tax was measured, that amendment of the system was under consideration. To this class belongs the provision of the Wisconsin Act of 1935 imposing an additional tax on income received in 1934. This feature of the Act is
It is to be remembered that the Act in question is not a curative statute for the collection of taxes assessed in a prior year and uncollected
If, as this court has repeatedly said, an income tax is an equitable method of distributing the necessary burdens of government, certainly no such discrimination as is evidenced by the challenged Act can properly fall within the description. The Act evidences purposeful and arbitrary discrimination and thus violates the guarantee of equal protection.
MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS and MR. JUSTICE BUTLER join in this opinion.