State Tonnage Tax Cases
Annotate this Case
79 U.S. 204 (1870)
U.S. Supreme Court
State Tonnage Tax Cases, 79 U.S. 12 Wall. 204 204 (1870)
State Tonnage Tax Cases
79 U.S. (12 Wall.) 204
1. Although taxes levied, as on property, by a state upon vessels owned by its citizens and based on a valuation of the same, are not prohibited by the federal Constitution, yet taxes cannot be imposed on them by the state "at so much per ton of the registered tonnage." Such taxes are within the prohibition of the Constitution, that "no state shall, without the consent of Congress, lay any duty of tonnage."
2. Nor is the case varied by the fact that the vessels were not only owned by citizens of the state, but exclusively engaged in trade between places within the state.
These were two cases, which, though coming in different forms, involved one and the same point only; and at the bar -- where the counsel directed attention to the principle involved, separated from the accidents of the case -- were discussed together as presenting "precisely the same question." The matter was thus:
The Constitution ordains that "no state shall without the consent of Congress lay any duty of tonnage." With this provision in force as superior law, the State of Alabama passed on the 22d of February, 1866, a revenue law. By this law, the rate of taxation for property generally was the one-half of one percent: but "on all steamboats, vessels, and other watercrafts plying in the navigable waters of the state," the act levied a tax at "the rate of $1 per tort of the registered tonnage thereof," which it declared should
"be assessed and collected
at the port where such vessels are registered, if practicable; otherwise at any other port or landing within the state where such vessel may be."
The tax collector was directed by the act to demand, in each year, of the person in charge of the vessel, if the taxes lead been paid. If a receipt for the same was not produced, he was to immediately assess the same according to tonnage, and if such tax was not paid on demand, he was to seize the boat, &c., and, after notice, proceed and sell the same for payment of the tax, &c., and pay the surplus into the county treasury for the use of the owner. If the vessel could not be seized, the collector was to make the amount of the tax out of the real and personal estate of the owner, &c.
Under this act, one Lott, tax collector of the State of Alabama, demanded of Cox, the owner of the Dorrance, a steamer of 321 tons, and valued at $5,000, and of several other steamers, certain stems as taxes; and under an act of 1867, identical in language with the one of 1866, just quoted, demanded from the Trade Company of Mobile certain sums on like vessels owned by them; the tax in all the cases being proportioned to the registered tonnage of the vessel.
The steamboats, the subject of the tax, were owned exclusively by citizens of the State of Alabama, and were engaged in the navigation of the Alabama, Bigbee, and Mobile Rivers, carrying freight and passengers between Mobile and other points of said rivers, altogether within the limits of that state. These waters were navigable from the sea for vessels of "ten and more tons burden," and it was not denied that there were ports of delivery on them above the highest points to which these boats plied. The owners of the boats were not assessed for any other tax on them than the one here claimed. The boats were enrolled and licensed for the coasting trade. Though running, therefore, between points altogether within the limits of the State of Alabama, the boats were, as it seemed, [Footnote 1] of that sort on which Congress lays a tonnage duty.
Cox, under compulsion and protest, paid the tax demanded of him, and then brought assumpsit in one of the inferior state courts of Alabama, to get back the money. The Trade Company refused to pay, and filed a bill in a like court, to enjoin the collector from proceeding to collect. The ground of resistance to the tax in each case was this, that being laid in proportion to the tonnage of the vessel, the tax was laid in a form and manner which the state was prohibited by the already quoted section of the Constitution from adopting. The right of the state to lay a tax on vessels according to their value and as property was not denied, but on the contrary, conceded. [Footnote 2] Judgment being given in each case against the validity of the tax, the matter was taken to the Supreme Court of Alabama, which decided that it was lawful. To review that judgment the case was now here.