Lacoste v. Department of Conservation
263 U.S. 545 (1924)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Lacoste v. Department of Conservation, 263 U.S. 545 (1924)

Lacoste v. Department of Conservation of Louisiana

No. 65

Argued October 11, 1923

Decided January 7, 1924

263 U.S. 545

ERROR TO THE SUPREME COURT

OF THE STATE OF LOUISIANA

Syllabus

1. By right of ownership, and in the exercise of police power, a state may regulate the taking of wild animals within its borders, their subsequent use, and the property right that may be acquired in them. P. 263 U. S. 549.

2. The question whether a state law interferes with or burdens interstate commerce is determined here with regard to the substance of the law; its form, or its characterization by the state legislature or courts, do not necessarily control. P. 263 U. S. 550.

3. In the exertion of its police power to protect wild animals for the common benefit, a state may require payment of a tax upon their skins or hides as a condition precedent to transfer of its title to the dealer paying the tax. Id.

4. The fact that such skins or hides are intended to be shipped out of the state without preliminary manufacture does not prevent their taxation by the state while in the hands of dealers and before they move in interstate commerce. P. 263 U. S. 551. Coe v. Errol,116 U. S. 517.

5. Nor does the fact that the law, for certainty of execution, taxes the hides or skins in the hands of the dealer who ships them out

Page 263 U. S. 546

of the state, or buys them for that purpose or to sell them for manufacture within the state, rather than taxing them in the hands of the trapper or buyer from whom the dealer procure them, constitute it an interference with interstate commerce. P. 263 U. S. 551.

6. A law imposing such a tax does not violate due process of law by delegating to an administrative body the authority to ascertain the prices of skins and hides paid by the dealer, determine the time and manner in which the tax shall be paid, and adopt and enforce reasonable rules and regulations, not contrary to the act, in relation to the collection of the tax. Id.

7. Wild animals taken and possessed with the permission of a state upon prescribed conditions may reasonably be distinguished from other classes of property, so that their skins and bodies may be taxed to dealers therein, consistently with equal protection of the laws, without imposing similar taxes on other kinds of property belonging to merchants. P. 263 U. S. 552.

8. A state has great latitude in choosing the means for protecting wildlife within its borders. Id.

151 La. 909 affirmed.

Error to a judgment of the Supreme Court of Louisiana which affirmed a judgment dismissing a suit brought by Lacoste et al. to enjoin the State Department of Conservation from enforcing payment of a severance tax.

MR. JUSTICE BUTLER delivered the opinion of the Court.

Plaintiffs in error are severally engaged in Louisiana in the business of buying, selling, importing, exporting and dealing in hides, skins, and furs, some of which come from wild fur-bearing animals and alligators in that

Page 263 U. S. 547

state. They brought this suit in the Civil District Court of the Parish of Orleans to enjoin the defendant in error from enforcing the payment of a severance tax levied by Act 135 of the General Assembly of Louisiana, 1920. * By that act, all wild fur-bearing animals and alligators in the state, and their skins, are declared to be the property of the state until the severance tax thereon shall have been paid. A dealer is defined to be one who buys such

Page 263 U. S. 548

skins and hides from either a trapper or a buyer and ships them from the state, or sells them for manufacture into a finished product in the state, or one who ships or carries them out of the state. Section 3 levies a severance tax of two percent on the value of all skins and hides taken from wild fur-bearing animals or alligators within the state, to be paid by the dealer to the state through the department of conservation. By other sections, trappers, buyers and dealers are required to pay license fees and to furnish to the department information concerning their respective occupations; an open season is fixed in each year for the taking of fur-bearing animals and alligators respectively, and such taking is prohibited at other times.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs in error aver that the defendant in error demands and purposes to enforce payment of the severance tax. They declare that they are willing to pay the license fee under protest and without conceding the validity of the act, but that defendant in error has refused to accept such payment or to issue licenses until the severance tax shall have been paid. It is set forth that the defendant in error has formulated rules and regulations requiring all shipments of such skins and hides to have attached thereto a certificate or label issued by the defendant in error, showing the payment of the severance tax, and prohibiting any carrier from accepting such shipments if not so labeled. It is alleged that defendant in error is about to seize and confiscate all shipments of skins and hides to be made by plaintiff in error, and that such seizure would be illegal, and would constitute a taking of property without due process of law, and would inflict upon them irreparable injury and damages, leaving them without remedy therefor.

Defendant in error moved to dismiss the suit on the ground that the complaint failed to state a cause of action,

Page 263 U. S. 549

and the district court granted the motion. The case was taken on appeal to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, and that court denied all contentions of plaintiffs in error, including one that the act is repugnant to the commerce clause of the Constitution of the United States and to the Fourteenth Amendment, and affirmed the judgment.

The wild animals within its borders are, so far as capable of ownership, owned by the state in its sovereign capacity for the common benefit of all of its people. Because of such ownership, and in the exercise of its police power, the state may regulate and control the taking, subsequent use and property rights that may be acquired therein. Geer v. Connecticut,161 U. S. 519, 161 U. S. 528; Ward v. Race Horse,163 U. S. 504, 163 U. S. 507; Silz v. Hesterberg,211 U. S. 31, 211 U. S. 39; Patsone v. Pennsylvania,232 U. S. 138, 232 U. S. 143; Kennedy v. Becker,241 U. S. 556, 241 U. S. 562; Carey v. South Dakota,250 U. S. 118; State v. Rodman, 58 Minn. 393, 400.

Whether the tax here involved might be upheld by virtue of the power of the state to prohibit, and therefore to condition, the removal of wild game from the state we do not now consider, but dispose of the case upon other grounds. The commerce clause (Article I, § 8, clause 3) confers on Congress power to regulate interstate and foreign commerce, and therefore such power is impliedly forbidden to the states.

"Even their power to lay and collect taxes, comprehensive and necessary as that power is, cannot be exerted in a way which involves a discrimination against such commerce."

Pennsylvania v. West Virginia,262 U. S. 553, 262 U. S. 596, and cases cited; Kansas City Railway v. Kansas,240 U. S. 227, 240 U. S. 231; Brimmer v. Rebman,138 U. S. 78, 138 U. S. 82; Elmer v. Wallace, 275 F. 86, 90; State v. Ferrandou, 130 La. 1035, 1041. A state may not enforce any law, the necessary effect of which is to prevent, obstruct, or burden interstate commerce. Pennsylvania

Page 263 U. S. 550

v. West Virginia, supra,262 U. S. 596-597, and cases cited. The Supreme Court of Louisiana held that the act here in question is a police regulation, and not a revenue act; that its object is to conserve and protect all fur-bearing animals and alligators within its borders, including their skins and hides; that the various subdivisions of the act relate to that object, and that payment of the tax is a condition precedent to the divestiture of the state's title and its transfer to the dealer paying the tax. The court said, in substance, that the tax is necessarily levied upon dealers, as they have established places of business, make inventories, and are easily accessible for the purpose of collection, and pointed out the difficulties in the way of levying the charge at the time of the severing of the skins or hides on itinerant trappers with no fixed place of abode or business.

This Court will determine for itself what is the necessary operation and effect of a state law challenged on the ground that it interferes with or burdens interstate commerce. The name, description, or characterization given it by the legislature or the courts of the state will not necessarily control. Regard must be had to the substance of the measure, rather than its form. Looney v. Crane Co.,245 U. S. 178, 245 U. S. 189et seq.; Kansas City Railway v. Kansas, supra; St. Louis Southwestern Railway v. Arkansas,235 U. S. 350, 235 U. S. 362; U.S. Express Co. v. Minnesota,223 U. S. 335, 223 U. S. 346; Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway Co. v. Texas,210 U. S. 217, 210 U. S. 227. Our examination of this act discloses no reason why the decision of the state court should be disturbed. The legislation is a valid exertion of the police power of the state to conserve and protect wildlife for the common benefit. It is within the power of the state to impose the exaction as a condition precedent to the divestiture of its title and to the acquisition of private ownership. Expressly, the tax is imposed upon all skins and hides taken within the

Page 263 U. S. 551

state. This includes those, if any, sold for manufacture in the state, as well as those shipped out. In their argument here, plaintiffs in error stated that skins and hides are not manufactured into finished products in Louisiana, and that all are shipped out of the state. But that is no objection to the tax. The state's power to tax property is not destroyed by the fact that it is intended for and will move in interstate commerce. Such skins and hides may be taxed while in the hands of dealers before they move in interstate commerce. Coe v. Errol,116 U. S. 517, 116 U. S. 525; Bacon v. Illinois,227 U. S. 504, 227 U. S. 515-516; Arkadelphia Co. v. St. Louis Southwestern Railway Co.,249 U. S. 134, 249 U. S. 151. Failure to levy and enforce the tax before the skins and hides reach the dealers does not make the necessary operation and effect of the law an interference with interstate commerce. The imposition of the tax on the skins and hides while in the hands of the dealers is calculated to make certain that all will be found for taxation. No interference with interstate commerce results from the enforcement of the act. It is not repugnant to the commerce clause of the Constitution.

Plaintiffs in error contend that the act violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. They argue that legislative authority is improperly delegated to, and that arbitrary power is conferred upon, the Department of Conservation, and that the severance tax is bad because imposed on such dealers in addition to property and license taxes that are imposed on merchants generally.

The contentions are without merit. The act provides:

"that there be and is hereby levied a severance tax of two (2

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