Postal Telegraph Cable Co. v. Adams, 155 U.S. 688 (1895)


U.S. Supreme Court

Postal Telegraph Cable Co. v. Adams, 155 U.S. 688 (1895)

Postal Telegraph Cable Company v. Adams

No. 649

Submitted December 3, 1894

Decided January 21, 1895

155 U.S. 688



U.S. Supreme Court

Postal Telegraph Cable Co. v. Adams, 155 U.S. 688 (1895) Postal Telegraph Cable Company v. Adams

No. 649

Submitted December 3, 1894

Decided January 21, 1895

155 U.S. 688




While a state cannot exclude from its limits a corporation enraged in interstate or foreign commerce or a corporation in the employment of the general government by the imposition of unreasonable conditions, it may subject it to a property taxation incidentally affecting its occupation in the same way that business of individuals or other corporations is affected by common governmental burdens.

The tax imposed by the laws of Mississippi (Code of 1880, c.10, § 585; Sess.Laws 1888, c. 3), when enforced against a telegraph company organized under the laws of another state and engaged in interstate commerce in Mississippi, being graduated according to the amount and value of the company's property measured by miles, and being in lieu of taxes directly levied on the property, is a tax which it is within the power of the state to impose, and the exercise of that power, as expounded by the highest judicial tribunal of the state, does not amount to a regulation of interstate commerce, or put an unconstitutional restraint thereon.

Page 155 U. S. 689

By the revenue laws of Mississippi certain taxes were levied as privilege taxes on various corporations, such as express companies, telegraph companies, insurance companies, sleeping car companies, banks of deposit or discount, gas companies, and the like, and on taverns, hotels, restaurants, brokers, auctioneers, peddlers, liquor sellers, dealers in malt liquors, and so on. Code Miss. 1880, c. 10, § 585; Sess.Laws Miss. 1888, c. 3. The tax required to be paid by telegraph companies was $3,000 on each telegraph company operating within the state one thousand miles or more of wire, and on each telegraph company operating less than one thousand miles of wire a tax of one dollar per mile, and the tax thus levied was "in lieu of other state, county, and municipal taxes." During the fiscal years 1890 and 1891, the Postal Telegraph Cable Company, a corporation chartered under the laws of New York, operated within the State of Mississippi three hundred ninety-one and twenty-eight hundredths miles of wire. The telegraph lines, equipment, and property appertaining thereto, owned and operated by the company within the limits of nineteen counties of the state, were during these years worth and valued at the sum of $41,967.54. The tax levied on the company be the law of March 8, 1888, under the name of privilege tax, amounted annually to $391.28, or an aggregate for the two years of $782.56. Under the general revenue laws of the state, the ad valorem tax on the property of the company for the two years would have been $1,188.56 for state and county purposes only, not including what might have been assessed and collected by municipalities in the way of ad valorem taxes for municipal purposes. For the years 1890 and 1891, the company failed to pay its taxes, and Adams, the state revenue agent of the State of Mississippi, brought suit in the Circuit Court of Hinds County, August 16, 1892, against the company therefor. The first count of the declaration was for the privilege taxes, and the second count for ad valorem taxes in the several counties, which it was alleged had been duly levied for state and county purposes. The company demurred to the second count and pleaded specially to the first count, in substance,

Page 155 U. S. 690

so far as essential here, that it was a telegraph company duly incorporated and organized under the laws of the State of New York and was on the 1st days of January, 1890, 1891, and 1892, respectively, engaged in, and still continued to carry on, the business of a telegraph company, having offices in various cities and towns in the State of Mississippi for the purpose of receiving and sending telegraphic messages and maintaining and operating certain lines of telegraph on the various post roads, public roads, and railroads extending over, across, leading into and from the State of Mississippi to the State of Alabama, and other points in other states of the United States and the dominion of Canada; that it was also the lessee of the Atlantic Postal Telegraph Cable Company, a corporation duly organized under the laws of the State of New York, and by its charter authorized to construct and operate lines of telegraph in and between the various states of the Union, including the State of Mississippi; that as such lessee and owner it was engaged in the general public telegraph business of transmitting messages for commercial purposes by, along, and over its lines within, from, through, and across the State of Mississippi and many other states and territories of the Union, and had offices for the receiving and sending of messages by telegraph in each and every state and territory wherein the lines leased or owned by it extended, including the State of Mississippi; that on or about the 6th day of March, 1886, the company duly filed its written acceptance with the Postmaster General of the United States of the restrictions and obligations of the act of Congress entitled, "An act to aid in the construction of telegraph lines and to secure to the government the use of the same for postal, military, and other purposes," approved July 24, 1866, now title 65 of the United States Revised Statutes, and that in pursuance thereof it had been designated by the Postmaster General as one of the telegraph companies that must transmit messages for the United States at a price and rate to be fixed by the said Postmaster General; that defendant was engaged as a governmental agent of the United States at the times mentioned, in transmitting messages for

Page 155 U. S. 691

the government of the United States between its various offices, not only from points within the State of Mississippi to points without the State of Mississippi, but also for such government officers from points wholly within the State of Mississippi to other points also wholly within the State of Mississippi, and that all of the roads upon which the lines of said company were constructed were post roads of the United States.

Plaintiff demurred to the special pleas. The case came on to be heard upon these demurrers, and the circuit court sustained defendant's demurrer to the second count, and plaintiff's demurrer to defendant's pleas to the first count, with leave to defendant to plead over. This defendant declined to do, and judgment was thereupon entered against the company for the amount of the so-called "privilege taxes" for the years 1890 and 1891, with interest and costs. From this judgment an appeal was taken to the Supreme Court of Mississippi, and the judgment affirmed. The opinion of that court will be found reported in advance of the official series in 14 S. 36. A writ of error was then allowed to this Court.

Page 155 U. S. 695

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE FULLER, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the Court.

It is settled that where, by way of duties laid on the transportation of the subjects of interstate commerce, or on the

Page 155 U. S. 696

receipts derived therefrom, or on the occupation or business of carrying it on, a tax is levied by a state on interstate commerce, such taxation amounts to a regulation of such commerce, and cannot be sustained. But property in a state belonging to a corporation, whether foreign or domestic, engaged in foreign or interstate commerce, may be taxed, or a tax may be imposed on the corporation on account of its property within a state, and may take the form of a tax for the privilege of exercising its franchises within the state if the ascertainment of the amount is made dependent in fact on the value of its property situated within the state (the exaction therefore not being susceptible of exceeding the sum which might be leviable directly thereon), and if payment be not made a condition precedent to the right to carry on the business, but its enforcement left to the ordinary means devised for the collection of taxes. The corporation is thus made to bear its proper proportion of the burdens of the government under whose protection it conducts its operations, while interstate commerce is not in itself subjected to restraint or impediment.

As pointed out by MR. JUSTICE FIELD in Horn Silver Mining Company v. New York, 143 U. S. 305, the right of a state to tax the franchise or privilege of being a corporation as personal property his been repeatedly recognized by this Court, and this whether the corporation be domestic or a foreign corporation doing business by its permission within the state. But a state cannot exclude from its limits a corporation engaged in interstate or foreign commerce, or a corporation in the employment of the general government, either directly in terms or indirectly by the imposition of inadmissible conditions. Nevertheless the state may subject it to such property taxation as only incidentally affects its occupation, as all business, whether of individuals or corporations, is affected by common governmental burdens. Ashley v. Ryan, 153 U. S. 436, and cases cited.

Doubtless no state could add to the taxation of property according to the rule of ordinary property taxation the burden of a license or other tax on the privilege of using, constructing,

Page 155 U. S. 697

or operating an instrumentality of interstate or international commerce, or for the carrying on of such commerce, but the value of property results from the use to which it is put, and varies with the profitableness of that use, and by whatever name the exaction may be called, if it amounts to no more than the ordinary tax upon property, or a just equivalent therefor, ascertained by reference thereto, it is not open to attack as inconsistent with the Constitution. Cleveland, Cincinnati &c. Railway v. Backus, 154 U. S. 439, 154 U. S. 445.

The method of taxation by "a tax on privileges" has been determined by the Supreme Court of Mississippi to be in harmony with the Constitution of that state, and that

"where the particular arrangement of taxation provided by legislative wisdom may be accounted for on the assumption of compounding or commuting for a just equivalent, according to the determination of the legislature, in the general scheme of taxation, it will not be condemned by the courts as violative of the [state] Constitution."

Vicksburg Bank v. Worrell, 67 Miss. 47. In that case, privilege taxes imposed on banks of deposit or discount, which varied with the amount of capital stock or assets and were declared to the "in lieu of all other taxes, state, county, or municipal, upon the shares and assets of said banks," came under review, and it was decided that the privilege tax, to be effectual as a release from liability for all other taxes, must be measured by the capital stock and entire assets or wealth of the bank, and that real estate bought with funds of the bank was exempt from the ordinary ad valorem taxes, but was part of the assets of the bank to be considered in fixing the basis of its privilege tax.

And in the case at bar, the supreme court, in its examination of the liability of plaintiff in error for the taxes in question, said:

"It will be thus seen at once this is a tax imposed upon a telegraph company, in lieu of all others, as a privilege tax, and its amount is graduated according to the amount and value of the property measured by miles. It is to be noticed that it is in lieu of all other taxes, state, county, municipal. The reasonableness of the imposition appears in

Page 155 U. S. 698

the record, as shown by the second count of the declaration and its exhibits, whereby the appellant seems to be burdened in this way with a tax much less than that which would be produced if its property had been subjected to a single ad valorem tax."

This exposition of the statute brings it within the rule where ad valorem taxes are compounded or commuted for a just equivalent, determined by reference to the amount and value of the property. Being thus brought within the rule, the tax becomes substantially a mere tax on property, and not one imposed on the privilege of doing interstate business. The substance, and not the shadow, determines the validity of the exercise of the power.

The act, in prescribing the ascertainment of the charge as to telegraph companies operating less than one thousand miles of wire, was directed to reach a reasonable commutation of the amount which the company would be compelled to pay if the taxation were ad valorem. The taxation was neither arbitrary nor discriminating, nor, so far as we are advised, was payment made a condition precedent to doing business, but collection was enforceable by suit, and the remedies pertaining thereto, and not otherwise. Code Mississippi 1880, §§ 585, 587-589, 594.

We concur with the view of the act thus expressed by the supreme court of the state, and, accepting it as correct, it is obvious that the case does not fall within the line of decisions in which state laws have been held inoperative because in conflict with, or amounting to the exercise of, or the assertion of control over, a power vested exclusively in the United States. In those decisions, the interference with the commercial power was found to be direct, and not the mere incidental effect of the requirement of the usual proportional contribution to public maintenance.

They need not be reexamined here, as the taxation in question, according to the proper interpretation of the statute, is in principle such as was sustained in Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Massachusetts, 125 U. S. 530; Ratterman v. West. Un. Telegraph Co., 127 U. S. 411; Pullman Palace Car Co. v. Pennsylvania, 141 U. S. 18; Massachusetts v. West Un. Telegraph

Page 155 U. S. 699

Co., 141 U. S. 40; Maine v. Grand Trunk Railway, 142 U. S. 217.

In Massachusetts v. Western Union Tel. Co., it was held that the tax imposed by the statutes of Massachusetts requiring every telegraph company owning a line of telegraph within the state to pay to the state treasurer "a tax upon its corporate franchise at a valuation thereof equal to the aggregate value of the shares in its capital stock," deducting such portion of that valuation as is proportional to the length of its lines without the state, and deducting also an amount equal to the value of its real estate and machinery, subject to local taxation within the state, was in effect a tax upon the corporation on account of property used by it within the state, and was constitutional and valid as applied to a telegraph company incorporated by another state, and which had accepted the rights conferred by Congress by section 5263 of the Revised Statutes. In arriving at this conclusion, Western Union Tel. Co. v. Massachusetts, 125 U. S. 530, was followed, and the following propositions affirmed in that case were reiterated by MR. JUSTICE GRAY, delivering the opinion of the Court:

"The franchise of the company to be a corporation, and to carry on the business of telegraphing, was derived not from the act of Congress, but from the laws of the State of New York, under which it was organized, and it never could have been intended by the Congress of the United States, in conferring upon a corporation of one state the authority to enter the territory of any other state, and to erect its poles and lines therein, to establish the proposition that such a company owed no obedience to the laws of the state into which it thus entered, and was under no obligation to pay its fair proportion of the taxes necessary to the support of the government of that state. 125 U.S. 125 U. S. 547-548. By whatever name the tax may be called, as described in the laws of Massachusetts, it is essentially an excise upon the capital of the corporation, and those laws attempt to ascertain the just amount which any corporation engaged in business within its limits shall pay as a contribution to the support of its government upon the amount and value of the

Page 155 U. S. 700

capital so employed by it therein. 125 U.S. 125 U. S. 547. The tax, though nominally upon the shares of the capital stock of the company, is in effect a tax upon that organization on account of property owned and used by it in the State of Massachusetts, and the proportion of the length of its lines in that state to their entire length throughout the whole country is made the basis for ascertaining the value of that property. Such a tax is not forbidden by the acceptance on the part of the telegraph company of the rights conferred by § 5263 of the Revised Statutes, or by the commerce clause of the Constitution. 125 U.S. 125 U. S. 552. The statute of Massachusetts is intended to govern the taxation of all corporations doing business within its territory, whether organized under its own laws or under those of some other state, and the rule adopted to ascertain the amount of the value of the capital engaged in that business within its boundaries, on which the tax should be assessed, is not an unfair or unjust one, and the details of the method by which this was determined have not exceeded the fair range of legislative discretion. 125 U.S. 125 U. S. 553."

In the case before us, the tax was graduated according to the amount and value of the property measured by miles, and was in lieu of taxes levied directly on the property. In marking the distinction between the power over commerce and municipal power, literal adherence to particular nomenclature should not be allowed to control construction in arriving at the true intention and effect of state legislation. We are of opinion that it was within the power of the state to levy a charge upon this company in the form of a franchise tax, but arrived at with reference to the value of its property within the state and in lieu of all other taxes, and that the exercise of that power by this statute, as expounded by the highest judicial tribunal of the state in the language we have quoted, did not amount to a regulation of interstate commerce or put an unconstitutional restraint thereon.

Judgment affirmed.