Williams v. Riley,
Annotate this Case
280 U.S. 78 (1929)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Williams v. Riley, 280 U.S. 78 (1929)
Williams v. Riley
Argued April 18, 1929
Decided November 25, 1929
280 U.S. 78
APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA
Statutes of California directed that all distributors of motor vehicle fuel should be licensed and pay taxes amounting to three cents per gallon sold, less an allowance of 1%, and provided for reimbursing purchasers of fuel not used for operating vehicles upon public highways. Plaintiffs, who, like thousands of other citizens and taxpayers of the state, must obtain fuel for operating their motor vehicles along the highways from the licensed distributors at prices enhanced by the 3-cent tax, sued the state officer charged with the duty of collecting the tax to enjoin him from so doing, alleging that the tax was in conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment, the federal Highway Act, and the constitution of the state. Held that the plaintiffs had no status to maintain such a suit. Frothingham v. Mellon, 262 U. S. 447. P. 280 U. S. 79.
APPEAL from a decree of the district court (three judges) dismissing the bill in a suit to enjoin the state Controller of California from enforcing statutes imposing a gasoline tax.
MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS delivered the opinion of the Court.
By Acts approved July 11, 1916, Chap. 241, 39 Stat. 355, and November 9, 1921, Chap. 119, 42 Stat. 212, Congress provided for aid to the states in roadmaking and directed that "all highways constructed or reconstructed
under the provisions of this Act shall be free from tolls of all kinds." California assented to the provisions of these acts, and under them received large sums of money from the United States.
By the motor vehicle fuel tax statutes, Chap. 267, Acts 1923, Chap. 359, Acts 1925, and chapters 716, 795, Acts 1927, the California Legislature defined motor vehicle fuel, and directed that all distributors of it should be licensed and pay taxes to the controller of the state, amounting to three cents per gallon sold, less an allowance of one percentum. These statutes further provides for reimbursing purchasers of fuel not used for operating vehicles upon public highways.
Appellants, along with thousands of other citizens and taxpayers of California, operate motor vehicles along the highways. They have procured, and must hereafter procure, the necessary fuel from licensed distributors at prices enhanced by the amount of the three-cent tax.
The original bill, filed in the district court of the United States August 4, 1928, names as the only defendant the State Controller -- the officer charged with the duty of enforcing the motor vehicle fuel tax statutes. It proceeds upon the theory that those statutes, under the form of taxing dealers from whom appellants and all other operators of motor vehicles must buy, in effect exact tolls for the use of the highways, also grant certain favors to the distributors, and deprive all such purchasers of their property without due process of law. Therefore, it is said, they conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment, the federal Highway Acts, and the Constitution of California. The prayer is for a decree declaring their invalidity and for an injunction restraining defendant from attempting to enforce them, etc.
In the court below -- three judges sitting -- the bill was dismissed without written opinion.
Appellants may not undertake to test the validity of the questioned acts by a proceeding of this character.
"The administration of any statute, likely to produce additional taxation to be imposed upon a vast number of taxpayers, the extent of whose several liability is indefinite and constantly changing, is essentially a matter of public, and not of individual, concern."
The federal courts have no power per se to review and annual acts of state legislatures upon the ground that they conflict with the federal or state constitutions.
"That question may be considered only when the justification for some direct injury suffered or threatened, presenting a justiciable issue, is made to rest upon such an act."
The decree below is
THE CHIEF JUSTICE, MR. JUSTICE VAN DE VANTER, and MR. JUSTICE BUTLER are of opinion that the appellants' status is such as entitles them to test the validity of the California statutes in question; that these statutes do not exact tolls for the use of highways, within the meaning of the limitation contained in the federal Highway Acts, and are not subject to the other objections urged against them, and that, for these reasons the decree below should be affirmed.