Railway Express Agency, Inc. v. Virginia
347 U.S. 359 (1954)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Railway Express Agency, Inc. v. Virginia, 347 U.S. 359 (1954)

Railway Express Agency, Inc. v. Virginia

No. 163

Argued January 5, 1954

Decided April 5, 1954

347 U.S. 359

APPEAL FROM THE SUPREME COURT OF APPEALS OF VIRGINIA

Syllabus

A Virginia statute provides a separate and detailed system of taxation for express companies. In addition to "taxes on property of express companies," it provides that, "for the privilege of doing business in this State," express companies shall pay an "annual license tax" upon gross receipts earned in the State "on business passing through, into, or out of this State."

Held: the gross receipts tax is in fact a effect a privilege tax, and its application to a foreign corporation doing an exclusively interstate business violates the Commerce Clause of the Federal Constitution. Pp. 347 U. S. 360-369.

(a) In a case involving the line between permissible state taxation of property at its full value, including going concern value, and prohibited taxation of gross receipts from interstate commerce, neither the state courts nor the legislature, by giving the tax a particular name or by the use of some form of words, can relieve this Court of its duty to consider the nature and effect of the tax, in which inquiry this Court is concerned only with the practical operation of the tax. P. 347 U. S. 363.

(b) When assessing tangible property, the State has the right to use any fair formula which will give effect to the intangible factors which influence real values, but that is not what the State did here. P. 347 U. S. 364.

(c) The practical effect of the challenged tax conforms to its statutory description as one whose impact is squarely upon gross receipts without consideration of their relation to the value of any of the classes of property recognized elsewhere in the statute. Pp. 347 U. S. 364-369

(d) Local incidents such as gathering up or putting down interstate commodities as an integral part of their interstate movement are not adequate grounds for a state license, privilege or occupation tax. Pp. 347 U. S. 367-368.

(e) Baltimore Steam Packet Co. v. Virginia, 343 U.S. 923, and Norfolk, B. & C. Line v. Virginia, 343 U.S. 923, distinguished. Pp. 347 U. S. 368-369.

194 Va. 757, 75 S.E.2d 61, reversed.

Page 347 U. S. 360

The Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia sustained the constitutionality of a state tax as applied to appellant. 194 Va. 757, 75 S. E. 2d 61. On appeal to this Court, reversed and remanded, p. 347 U. S. 369.

Opinion of the Court by MR. JUSTICE JACKSON, announced by MR. JUSTICE REED.

This appeal from the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia presents another variation in the seemingly endless problems raised by efforts of the several states to tax commerce as it moves among them.

In the 1920's, the railroads of the country took over the express business theretofore separately handled. Their instrumentality was this appellant, a Delaware corporation, chartered for interstate and intrastate operation throughout the Union and actually so operating in every state except Virginia. It sought to do a general express business there, but that State has a constitutional provision which forbids a foreign corporation to exercise any public service powers or functions therein. [Footnote 1] This prohibition was invoked by the State Corporation Commission [Footnote 2] to deny appellant authority to do any intrastate business. This exclusion was sustained by Virginia's highest court [Footnote 3] and by this Court. [Footnote 4]

Page 347 U. S. 361

As a consequence of the State's own policy, this appellant does no business in Virginia which the State has power to prohibit, but does only such as it can conduct under protection of the Commerce Clause of the Federal Constitution. To handle such intrastate express as falls within the power of the State to control, a separate Virginia subsidiary necessarily was organized. That local company annually has been assessed and has paid the type of tax here in controversy, based upon its total gross receipts. Those payments are not before us.

Virginia provides by statute [Footnote 5] a separate and detailed system of taxation for express companies. It allocates

Page 347 U. S. 362

to state taxation, free of all local levies, two kinds of property, viz., intangible personal property and money. It sets off real estate and tangible personal property for local levies at the same rates as other similar properties. These, taxable at different rates, are all included in the statute under the rubric "Taxes on property of express companies." Then follows a section headed "Annual license tax" providing that, "for the privilege of doing business in this State," express companies shall pay, "in addition to . . . the property tax as herein provided" an "annual license tax" upon gross receipts earned in the State "on business passing through, into or out of this State."

Appellant has protested the gross receipts tax, and for some years the protesting company and the state authorities appear to have come together on a compromise formula as to the portion of receipts attributable to Virginia, the details of which need not concern us, since it does not affect the issue of power now adequately raised, passed upon by the State Corporation Commission and the Supreme Court of Appeals, and duly brought before us.

Page 347 U. S. 363

Since admittedly the State did not grant any privilege, but, on the contrary, denied every privilege in its power to withhold, and since it concedes that appellant does nothing within the State except interstate commerce, appellant contends that the assessment is invalid for contravention of the Commerce Clause of the Federal Constitution.

The State counters with the contention that we should regard this not as a privilege tax, even though it was labeled as such by the statute imposing it, but, instead, as a property tax measured by gross income and laid on the intangible value of goodwill or going concern status. The Corporation Commission said that the physical properties were assessed at dead value or barebones value for local taxation, while here the "live or going concern value" is being separately taxed by the State "for the protection and services rendered by it." [Footnote 6] The State's highest court approved. While great respect is due these conclusions, it has long been held that, in a case involving the line between permissible state taxation of property at its full value, including going concern value, and prohibited taxation of gross receipts from interstate commerce,

"neither the state courts nor the legislatures, by giving the tax a particular name or by the use of some form of words, can take away our duty to consider its nature and effect,"

Galveston, H. & S.A. R. Co. v. Texas,210 U. S. 217, 210 U. S. 227, in which inquiry "we are concerned only with its practical operation." Lawrence v. State Tax Comm'n,286 U. S. 276, 286 U. S. 280. See Wisconsin v. J. C. Penney Co.,311 U. S. 435, 311 U. S. 443-444.

We start with the taxing statute, in which the Legislature gave a trinity of characterizations to the tax. It

Page 347 U. S. 364

was declared to be in addition to the "property tax," not an additional property tax; it was named "an annual license tax," and it was laid "for the privilege of doing business in this State." It is not an easy conclusion that the Legislature did not know the actual character of the tax it was laying, or that it misconceived what it was taxing. If the tax was, in purpose and effect, one on property, tangible or intangible, no reason is apparent for casting it in the mold of a privilege tax. Indeed, as the Corporation Commission finally said, the opposite is true, and some other basis for the tax must be found if it is to be saved as valid. This both the Commission and the court below sought to do.

The Virginia court, in this and earlier cases, considered that gross earnings measure the value of a goodwill or going concern element which is a separate intangible property of the company.

Of course, we have held, and it is but common sense to hold, that a physical asset may fluctuate in value according to the income it can be made to produce. A live horse is worth more than a dead one, though the physical object may be the same, and a smooth-going automobile is worth more than an unassembled collection of all its parts. The physical facilities used in carrying on a prosperous business are worth more than the same assets in bankruptcy liquidation or on sale by the sheriff. No one denies the right of the State, when assessing tangible property, to use any fair formula which will give effect to the intangible factors which influence real values. Adams Express Co. v. Ohio State Auditor,166 U. S. 185. But Virginia has not done this.

Instead, the practical effect of the tax conforms to its statutory description as one whose impact is squarely upon gross receipts, without consideration of their effect on the value of any of the classes of property recognized elsewhere

Page 347 U. S. 365

in the statute. A summary of appellant's total taxation for 1951 will illustrate this point. [Footnote 7] It reported money on deposit in Virginia of $109,906.38, on which it paid a tax of $219.81 at the rate of twenty cents per $100. We may drop this item from consideration of additional going concern value, for money is money, and is a medium of exchange which does not deflate or inflate according to the owner's use of it. A dollar to an express company is worth as much and no more than a dollar to one of its employees. But this company had real property and tangible personal property, items no doubt possessing a going concern as well as an intrinsic value. These properties were assessed at $129,279, on which it paid taxes of $3,389.65 at local rates, probably varied but averaging 2.6 per centum.

Page 347 U. S. 366

Appellant's tax, under the questioned portion of the statute, amounted to $66,454.71, so that its tax on a gross receipts basis was over fifty percent of the total value of its real and tangible personal property. It is this tax which Virginia says is really a tax on the intangible value of this tangible property.

Neither the state court nor the Commission has seen fit to state any amount which it considers to be the going concern valuation. We know the amount of the tax, and we know the rates of taxation, and from that can compute a possible valuation base. If this going concern value be treated as separable "intangible property," the statutory rate is fifty cents per $100, at which rate tangible property worth only $129,279 must be deemed to have an intangible going concern value of $13,290,942. In other words, every dollar invested in the tangible property of an express business is deemed worth over $100 for tax purposes. This may not overtax the express company, but it does overtax our credulity, and neither the court nor the Commission, while treating this as an intangible, expressly treated it as entitled to the intangible property rate or classification.

But the $66,454.71 of tax and the statutory gross earnings tax rate of 2 3/20 per centum produce a base of $3,090,916.55, which is exactly the amount of gross revenues reported by appellant. To ascribe a going concern value of over three million dollars to tangible property of $129.279 is, on its face, an extreme attribution. To base the value on appellant's gross revenues is to assume that every dollar of annual intake adds a dollar of intangible value to the company's assets, regardless of how much it cost in labor, interest, and other expense, including other taxes, to produce it. On the other hand, as a forthright tax on gross receipts, the tax involves no irrational or impractical assumption.

Page 347 U. S. 367

We have sustained and would now sustain the power of a state to tax, without discrimination, all property within its jurisdiction and to include in its assessment, or to assess separately, the value added by the property's assemblage into a going business, even if that business be solely interstate commerce. Cf. Meyer v. Wells Fargo & Co.,223 U. S. 298; Baker v. Druesedow,263 U. S. 137; Adams Express Co. v. Ohio State Auditor,166 U. S. 185. The impact of the tax is thus upon the proportionate total worth of the property. But the tax in dispute here does not depend on owning any physical property, nor upon the value thereof, but would be levied on gross revenues even if the company found some way to dispense with all local, physical property. The fact that its measure is gross revenue is consistent with a tax on the privilege of doing a volume of business which would yield that revenue, just as the Legislature indicated. But we have declined to regard mere gross receipts as a sound measure of going concern value in a practical world of commerce, where values depend on profitableness of a business, not merely its volume. Cf. United States Glue Co. v. Town of Oak Creek,247 U. S. 321, 247 U. S. 328-329.

Here, the State excises every receipt from movement of express in interstate commerce. It takes a portion of gross revenue from "all receipts earned in this State on business passing through, into, or out of this State." It contends that this obvious burden on interstate commerce is validated by state protection of a localized incident in the course of the business. The three incidents are originating the interstate movement, which requires local pickup of the parcels; terminating the movement, which requires delivery, and movement through the State. If each of these incidents is sufficient warrant for taxing gross revenues from wholly interstate commerce, a concern doing a nationwide business is vulnerable to a gross revenue tax in every one of the forty-eight states. But

Page 347 U. S. 368

it is argued that this is permissible, provided the states formulate their burden so as each to burden it proportionately, not encroaching on the other's right to burden. It is enough to say that we recently have ruled that local incidents such as gathering up or putting down interstate commodities as an integral part of their interstate movement are not adequate grounds for a state license, privilege, or occupation tax. Spector Motor Service, Inc. v. O'Connor,340 U. S. 602; Memphis Steam Laundry Cleaner, Inc. v. Stone,342 U. S. 389; Michigan-Wisconsin Pipe Line Co. v. Calvert,347 U. S. 157; New Jersey Bell Telephone Co. v. State Board,280 U. S. 338.

The Supreme Court of Appeals placed reliance upon our dismissal of the appeals in Baltimore Steam Packet Co. v. Virginia, 343 U.S. 923, and Norfolk, Baltimore & Carolina Line, Inc. v. Virginia, 343 U.S. 923, and may well have been misled, since we assigned no reasons and cited no authority. In those cases, the Virginia court held an almost identical tax to be a property tax. Virginia v. Baltimore Steam Packet Co., 193 Va. 55, 68 S.E.2d 137. [Footnote 8] But a vital distinction, so far as our jurisdiction is concerned, will account for dismissal of the appeals. One of those appellants was a Virginia corporation, and derived its privilege to exist from that State. Both were engaged in intrastate, as well as interstate, commerce, and were therefore subject to some privilege tax from the State. For our purposes, it mattered not whether the

Page 347 U. S. 369

right to tax was based on those companies' privileges or on their property, since they were taxable on either basis. This fact distinguishes those dismissed cases from the one at bar and from Spector Motor Service, Inc. v. O'Connor, supra. Those appeals did not question the fairness of apportionment of revenues between the interstate and intrastate business so as to require such consideration as we gave in Central Greyhound Lines v. Mealey,334 U. S. 653. It was therefore a mistake to assume that this Court, by dismissal of the appeals, approved the holding of the Virginia court that this statute imposes what in reality is a property tax, though otherwise named and shaped.

We think we can only regard this tax as being, in fact and effect, just what the Legislature said it was -- a privilege tax, and one that cannot be applied to an exclusively interstate business.

The judgment is reversed, and the cause remanded for any further proceeding not inconsistent herewith.

Reversed and remanded.

[Footnote 1]

Va.Const., Art. XII, § 163.

[Footnote 2]

Case No. 3900, Virginia Corporation Commission Report (1929), p. 252.

[Footnote 3]

Railway Express Agency, Inc. v. Commonwealth ex rel. State Corporation Comm., 153 Va. 498, 150 S.E. 419.

[Footnote 4]

282 U. S. 282 U.S. 440.

[Footnote 5]

The tax in question is laid under Va. Code, 1950, § 58-547. This section and the section immediately preceding it read as follows:

"§ 58-546. Taxes on property of express companies. -- Each and every one of the express companies doing business in this State shall, on or before the first day of October of each and every year, pay to the State and to the several counties, cities, and towns of the State wherein they may have taxable properties located, the taxes levied on such property as follows:"

"(1) The State tax on the intangible personal property (other than shares of stock, and bonds issued by counties, cities and towns or other political subdivisions of this State) owned by every such company shall be at the rate of fifty cents on every one hundred dollars of the assessed value thereof;"

"(2) The State tax on the money of every such company shall be twenty cents on every one hundred dollars of the assessed value thereof;"

"(3) There shall be no local levies assessed on such intangible personal property or money;"

"(4) On the real estate and tangible personal property of every such company there shall be local levies at the same rate or rates as are assessed upon other real estate and tangible personal property located in such localities, the proceeds of which local levies shall be applied as is provided by law."

"The provisions of this section shall apply to the assessment for the tax year nineteen hundred forty-nine and annually thereafter, unless otherwise provided by law."

"§ 58-547. Annual license tax. -- Every such company, for the privilege of doing business in this State, in addition to the annual registration fee and the property tax as herein provided, shall pay an annual license tax as follows:"

"The tax shall be equal to two and three-twentieths per centum upon the gross receipts from operations of such companies and each of them within this State. When such companies are operating partly within and party without this State, the gross receipts within this State shall be deemed to be all receipts on business beginning and ending within this State and all receipts earned in this State on business passing through, into or out of this State; provided, unless otherwise clearly shown, such last-mentioned receipts shall be deemed to be that portion of the total receipts from such business which the entire mileage over which such business is done bears to the mileage operated within this State."

"The provisions of this section shall apply to the assessment for the tax year nineteen hundred forty-nine and annually thereafter, unless otherwise provided by law."

[Footnote 6]

Cases Nos. 10,629 and 10,767, Virginia Corporation Commission Report (1952). The Commission was quoting from the opinion of the Supreme Court of Appeals in Commonwealth v. Baltimore Steam Packet Co., 193 Va. 55, 70, 68 S.E.2d 137, 147.

[Footnote 7]

The figures discussed in the text are summarized in the following chart for the year 1951.

bwm:

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Types of Property Statutory Tax Assessed Value of Taxes Paid by

Taxed Rate Appellant's Property Appellant

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1. Intangible person- 50

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