Wardair Canada v. Fla. Dept. of Rev.,
477 U.S. 1 (1986)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Wardair Canada v. Fla. Dept. of Rev., 477 U.S. 1 (1986)

Wardair Canada v. Florida Department of Revenue

No. 84-902

Argued March 31, 1986

Decided June 18, 1986

477 U.S. 1


During the time period in question, Florida law imposed a tax on all aviation fuel sold within the State to airlines regardless of whether the fuel was used to fly within or without the State, or whether the airline engaged in a substantial or a nominal amount of business within the State. Shortly after the law was enacted, appellant, a Canadian airline that operates charter flights to and from the United States, filed a state court action attacking the law's validity insofar as it authorized assessment of a tax on fuel used by foreign airlines exclusively in foreign commerce. Granting injunctive relief, the trial court held that an agreement between Canada and the United States expressed a "federal policy" to exempt foreign airlines from fuel taxes and precluded individual States from acting in such area. The Florida Supreme Court reversed in part, holding that the agreement did not preempt state sales taxes, and that the Florida tax was not invalid under the Foreign Commerce Clause of the Federal Constitution.


1. The Federal Aviation Act does not occupy the field of international aviation, and thus does not preempt all state regulation. Where a federal statute does not expressly declare that state law is preempted, and where there is no actual conflict between what federal and state law prescribe, there must be evidence of a congressional intent to preempt the specific field covered by the state law. In the present case, not only is there no indication that Congress wished to preclude state sales taxation

Page 477 U. S. 2

of airline fuel, but, to the contrary, the Federal Aviation Act expressly permits States to impose such taxes. 477 U. S. 5-7.

2. The Florida tax does not violate the dormant Foreign Commerce Clause on the ground that the tax threatens the ability of the Federal Government to speak with one voice with respect to the asserted federal policy of reciprocal tax exemptions for aircraft, equipment, and supplies, including aviation fuel, that constitute the instrumentalities of international air traffic. The evidence relied upon for such contention fails to reveal any such federal policy. Moreover, the evidence shows the absence of the sort of federal governmental silence that triggers dormant Commerce Clause analysis. The numerous international documents cited, including the agreement referred to in the courts below, show that, while there appears to be an international aspiration on the one hand to eliminate all impediments to foreign air travel -- including taxation of fuel -- the law as it presently stands acquiesces in taxation of the sale of that fuel by political subdivisions of countries. Although most of the cited bilateral agreements explicitly commit the United States to refrain from imposing national taxes on aviation fuel used by airlines of the other contracting party, none of the agreements explicitly interdict state or local taxes on aviation fuel used by foreign airlines in international traffic. The facts presented by this case show that the Federal Government has affirmatively decided to permit the States to impose sales taxes on aviation fuel. Pp. 477 U. S. 7-13.

455 So.2d 326, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, POWELL, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 477 U. S. 13. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 477 U. S. 18.

Page 477 U. S. 3

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