The grounds of state court decision, holding a graduated tax on
gross income from chain stores unconstitutional, being obscure, and
the jurisdiction of this Court to review being therefore in doubt,
the judgment is vacated and the cause remanded for further
proceedings so that the state and federal questions may be clearly
separated. P. 309 U. S.
205 Minn. 443, 286 N.W. 360, vacated.
Certiorari, 308 U.S. 547, to review the affirmance of judgments
granting refunds of taxes.
MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.
In 1933, Minnesota enacted a chain store tax (L.1933, c. 213)
one item of which was a tax on gross sales. § 2(b). The gross sales
tax was graduated: one-twentieth of one percent was applied on that
portion of gross sales not in excess of $100,000, and larger
percentages were applied as the volume of gross sales increased,
until one percent was exacted on that portion of gross sales in
excess of $1,000,000. Respondents (chain stores conducting retail
businesses in Minnesota) paid under protest the gross sales tax
demanded by the Minnesota Tax Commission for the years 1933 and
1934, and thereafter
Page 309 U. S. 552
sued in the state court for refunds. [Footnote 1
] Judgments granting refunds were affirmed by
the Supreme Court of Minnesota, 205 Minn. 443, 286 N.W. 360. We
granted certiorari, 308 U.S. 547, because of the importance of the
constitutional issues involved in Stewart Dry Goods Co. v.
Lewis, 294 U. S. 550
Valentine v. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co.,
299 U. S. 32
cases, it was asserted, controlled the decision below.
At the threshold of an inquiry into the applicability of the
cases to these facts, we
are met with a question which is decisive of the present petition.
That is the question of jurisdiction.
The Supreme Court of Minnesota discussed not only the equal
protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the federal
constitution, but also Art. 9, § 1 of the Minnesota constitution
which provides: "Taxes shall be uniform upon the same class of
subjects. . . ." It said that
"these provisions of the Federal and State Constitutions impose
identical restrictions upon the legislative power of the state in
respect to classification for purposes of taxation. [Footnote 2
It stated that the
"question is . . . whether the imposition of a graduated gross
sales tax upon all those engaged in conducting chain stores is
discriminatory as between such owners, thus violating the
constitutional requirement of uniformity."
It quoted the conclusion of the lower Minnesota court that the
statute violated both the federal and the state constitution. It
then adverted briefly to three of its former decisions which
Page 309 U. S. 553
interpreted Art. 9, § 1 of the Minnesota constitution and quoted
from one of them. [Footnote 3
It merely added, "[s]o much for our own cases," and proceeded at
once to a discussion of cases based solely on the Fourteenth
Amendment of the federal constitution. While its discussion of Art.
9, § 1 of the Minnesota Constitution was in general terms, its
analysis of the Fourteenth Amendment was specifically related to
chain store taxation. It distinguished decisions of this Court
which held that the number of stores in a given chain affords an
appropriate basis for classification for imposition of
progressively higher taxes. [Footnote 4
] It then stated that the "precise question here
presented" had been directly passed upon adversely to the state's
contention in five cases: Stewart Dry Goods Co. v. Lewis,
supra; Valentine v. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., supra;
Ed. Schuster & Co. v. Henry,
218 Wis. 506, 261 N.W. 20;
Lane Drug Stores, Inc. v. Lee, 11 F. Supp.
; Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. v. Harvey,
107 Vt. 215, 177 A. 423. It added that the tax here involved was
Page 309 U. S. 554
all fours with that struck down by this court in Stewart Dry
Goods Co. v. Lewis, supra.
It quoted with approval from the
opinion in Ed. Schuster & Co. v. Henry, supra.
concluded with the following statement:
"We think the five cases to which we have referred have so
definitely and finally disposed of the legal problem presented
as to make it needless for us to analyze or discuss the great
number of other tax cases where the same constitutional question
was involved. These being the only cases to which our attention has
been called directly deciding the question presented,
are of opinion that we should follow them, and that it is our
duty so to do.
Respondents contend that the court held the statute invalid for
violation not only of the federal constitution, but also of the
state constitution. Hence, they seek to invoke the familiar rule
that, where a judgment of a state court rests on two grounds, one
involving a federal question and the other not, this Court will not
take jurisdiction. Fox Film Corp. v. Muller, 296 U.
; Lynch v. New York ex rel. Pierson,
293 U. S. 52
New York City v. Central Savings Bank,
306 U.S. 661. In
support of this position, they point to the court's discussion of
the Minnesota Constitution and to the fact that the syllabus states
that such a tax is violative of both the federal and state
constitutions. [Footnote 6
But, as to the latter, we are not referred to any Minnesota
authority which, as in some states, [Footnote 7
] makes the syllabi the law of the case. And, as
to the former, the opinion is quite inconclusive. For the opinion
as a whole leaves the impression that the court probably
Page 309 U. S. 555
felt constrained to rule as it did because of the five decisions
which it cited and which held such gross sales taxes
unconstitutional by reason of the Fourteenth Amendment. That is at
least the meaning, if the words used are taken literally. For if,
as stated by the court, the "precise question here presented" was
ruled by those five cases, that question was a federal one. And, in
that connection, it is perhaps significant that the court stated
not only that it "should follow" those decisions, but that "it is
our duty so to do."
Enough has been said to demonstrate that there is considerable
uncertainty as to the precise grounds for the decision. That is
sufficient reason for us to decline at this time to review the
federal question asserted to be present, Honeyman v.
Hanan, 300 U. S. 14
consistently with the policy of not passing upon questions of a
constitutional nature which are not clearly necessary to a decision
of the case.
But that does not mean that we should dismiss the petition. This
Court has frequently held that, in the exercise of its appellate
jurisdiction, it has the power not only to correct errors of law in
the judgment under review, but also to make such disposition of the
case as justice requires. State Tax Commission v. Van
Cott, 306 U. S. 511
Patterson v. Alabama, 294 U. S. 600
That principle has been applied to cases coming from state courts
where supervening changes had occurred since entry of the judgment,
where the record failed adequately to state the facts underlying a
decision of the federal question, and where the grounds of the
state decision were obscure. Honeyman v. Hanan, supra,
cases there cited. That principle was also applied in State Tax
Commission v. Van Cott, supra,
where it was said, p.
306 U. S.
". . . if the State court did in fact intend alternatively to
base its decision upon the State statute and upon an
Page 309 U. S. 556
immunity it thought granted by the Constitution as interpreted
by this Court, these two grounds are so interwoven that we are
unable to conclude that the judgment rests upon an independent
interpretation of the State law."
The procedure in those case was to vacate the judgment and to
remand the cause for further proceedings, so that the federal
question might be dissected out or the state and federal questions
In this type of case. we deem it essential that this procedure
be followed. It is possible that the state court employed the
decisions under the federal constitution merely as persuasive
authorities for its independent interpretation of the state
constitution. If that were true, we would have no jurisdiction to
review. State Tax Commission v. Van Cott, supra.
other hand, we cannot be content with a dismissal of the petition
where there is strong indication, as here, that the federal
constitution as judicially construed controlled the decision
If a state court merely said that the Fourteenth Amendment, as
construed by this Court, is the "supreme law of the land," to which
obedience must be given, our jurisdiction would seem to be
inescapable. And that would follow though the state court might
have given, if it had chosen, a different construction to an
identical provision in the state constitution. But the Minnesota
Supreme Court did not take such an unequivocal position. On the
other hand, it did not declare its independence of the decisions of
this Court, when the state constitutional provision avowedly had
identity of scope with the relevant clause of the Fourteenth
Amendment. In the latter respect, this case differs from New
York City v. Central Savings Bank, supra.
The cases in which
the New York Court of Appeals professes to go on both the state and
federal due process clauses clearly rest upon an adequate
nonfederal ground. For that court has
Page 309 U. S. 557
ruled that its own conception of due process governs, though the
same phrase in the federal constitution may have been given
different scope by decisions of this Court. See Ives v. South
Buffalo Railway Co.,
201 N.Y. 271, 317, 94 N.E. 431. The
instant case therefore presents an intermediate situation to which
an application of the procedure followed in State Tax
Commission v. Van Cott, supra,
is peculiarly appropriate.
It is important that this Court not indulge in needless
dissertations on constitutional law. It is fundamental that state
courts be left free and unfettered by us in interpreting their
state constitutions. But it is equally important that ambiguous or
obscure adjudications by state courts do not stand as barriers to a
determination by this Court of the validity under the federal
constitution of state action. Intelligent exercise of our appellate
powers compels us to ask for the elimination of the obscurities and
ambiguities from the opinions in such cases. Only then can we
ascertain whether or not our jurisdiction to review should be
invoked. Only by that procedure can the responsibility for striking
down or upholding state legislation be fairly placed. For no other
course assures that important federal issues, such as have been
argued here, will reach this Court for adjudication; that state
courts will not be the final arbiters of important issues under the
federal constitution, and that we will not encroach on the
constitutional jurisdiction of the states. This is not a mere
technical rule, nor a rule for our convenience. It touches the
division of authority between state courts and this Court, and is
of equal importance to each. Only by such explicitness can the
highest courts of the states and this Court keep within the bounds
of their respective jurisdictions.
For these reasons, we vacate the judgment of the Supreme Court
of Minnesota and remand the cause to that court for further
Page 309 U. S. 558
MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS took no part in the decision of this
Extra Sess.L.1933-1934, c. 16, § 1. Respondents also paid under
protest that portion of the chain store tax which was based upon
the number of stores within the state. L.1933, c. 213, § 2(a). That
item of the composite tax was upheld by the lower court in
Minnesota from which no appeal was taken.
The gross sales feature of the 1933 chain store tax was
eliminated in 1937. Extra Sess.L.1937, c. 93.
205 Minn., p. 447. The court here cited Reed v.
191 Minn. 254, 253 N.W. 102.
This reference to Minnesota constitutional law was limited to
"Our cases hold (and that is the general rule) that the
"has a wide discretion in classifying property for the purposes
of taxation, but the classification must be based on differences
which furnish a reasonable ground for making a distinction between
the several classes. The differences must not be so wanting in
substance that the classification results in permitting one to
escape a burden imposed on another under substantially similar
circumstances and conditions. The rule of uniformity, established
by the Constitution requires that all similarly situated shall be
"State v. Minnesota Farmers Mut. Ins. Co.,
231, 234, 176 N.W. 756, 757; State ex rel. Mudeking v.
109 Minn. 147, 152, 123 N.W. 408; In re Improvement
of Third Street,
185 Minn. 170, 240 N.W. 355."
State Board of Tax Commissioners v. Jackson,
283 U. S. 527
Liggett Co. v. Lee, 288 U. S. 517
Fox v. Standard Oil Co., 294 U. S. 87
Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. v. Grosjean,
301 U. S. 412
205 Minn., p. 451.
By statute, the court is required to prepare the syllabus.
Mason's Minn.Stats.1927, § 134.
See State v. Hauser,
101 Ohio St. 404, 407, 131 N.E.
66; Hart v. Andrews,
103 Ohio St. 218, 221, 132 N.E. 846;
Thackery v. Helfrich,
123 Ohio St. 334, 336, 176 N.E.
MR. CHIEF JUSTICE HUGHES, dissenting.
I think that sound principle governing the exercise of our
jurisdiction requires the dismissal of the writ. I see no reason to
doubt that the Supreme Court of Minnesota held that the tax in
question was laid in violation of the uniformity clause of the
State Constitution. Not only is that shown, as it seems to me, from
the court's discussion of that question, but it conclusively
appears from the syllabus, which definitely states that the tax is
"violative of Minn.Const. art. 9, § 1." 205 Minn. 443, 286 N.W.
360. Minnesota requires that, in all cases decided by the Supreme
Court, it shall give its decision in writing, "together with
headnotes, briefly stating the points decided." Mason's Minn.Stat.,
Sec. 134. In obedience to the statute, the court has thus given
explicitly in its syllabus its own deliberate construction of what
it has decided.
The decision thus rested upon an adequate nonfederal ground,
and, in accordance with long established doctrine, we are without
jurisdiction. Fox Film Corp. v. Muller, 296 U.
, 296 U. S.
This is not a case where the record leaves us in uncertainty as
to what has actually been determined by the state court.
Honeyman v. Hanan, 300 U. S. 14
300 U. S. 23
300 U. S. 26
State Tax Commission v. Van Cott, 306 U.
. Nor have there been supervening changes since
the entry of the judgment. Gulf, Colorado & S.F. Ry. Co. v.
Dennis, 224 U. S. 503
224 U. S. 507
Patterson v. Alabama, 294 U. S. 600
294 U. S. 607
I find no warrant for vacating the judgment on either of these
The fact that provisions of the state and federal constitutions
may be similar or even identical does not justify us in disturbing
a judgment of a state court which adequately
Page 309 U. S. 559
rests upon its application of the provision of its own
constitution. That the state court may be influenced by the
reasoning of our opinions makes no difference. The state court may
be persuaded by majority opinions in this Court, or it may prefer
the reasoning of dissenting judges, but the judgment of the state
court upon the application of its own constitution remains a
judgment which we are without jurisdiction to review. Whether in
this case we thought that the state tax was repugnant to the
federal constitution or consistent with it, the judgment of the
state court that the tax violated the state constitution would
still stand. It cannot be supposed that the Supreme Court of
Minnesota is not fully conscious of its independent authority to
construe the constitution of the State, whatever reasons it may
adduce in so doing. As the Minnesota court said in Reed v.
191 Minn. 254, 257, 253 N.W. 102, 104, after
referring to the question presented under the federal constitution,
"Our interpretation of our own Constitution is, of course,
The disposition of this case is directly within our recent and
unanimous ruling in New York City v. Central Savings Bank,
306 U.S. 661. In that case, the Court of Appeals of New York had
decided that a state statute was repugnant to the due process
clause of the state constitution, that clause being the same as the
due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment which the court held
had also been violated. Central Sav. Bank v. City of New
280 N.Y. 9, 10, 19 N.E.2d 659. We declined jurisdiction
upon the ground that the judgment of the state court in applying
the state constitution rested upon an adequate nonfederal ground,
despite the reliance upon our decisions.
MR. JUSTICE STONE and MR. JUSTICE ROBERTS join in this