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Opinion of the Court.
question was whether property bequeathed to the United States could be lawfully included in a succession tax. It was decided that it could be. In the opinion, delivered by Mr. Justice Brown, it was said (p. 628):
“The tax is not upon the property in the ordinary sense of the term, but upon the right to dispose of it, and it is not until it has yielded its contribution to the State that it becomes the property of the legatee."
Again (p. 629):
“ That the tax is not a tax upon the property itself, but upon its transmission by will or descent, is also held, both in New York and in several other States.”
Yet again (p. 630):
“We think that it follows from this that the act in question is not open to the objection that it is an attempt to tax the property of the United States, since the tax is upon the legacy before it reaches the hands of the Government. The legacy becomes the property of the United States only after it has suffered a diminution to the amount of the tax, and it is only upon this condition that the legislature assents to a bequest of it.”
Once more, quite recently, the subject was considered in Magoun v. Illinois Trust & Savings Bank, 170 U. S. 283. The issue for decision was this: A law of the State of Illinois imposed a legacy and inheritance tax, the rate progressing by the amount of the beneficial interest acquired. This progression of rates was assailed in the courts of Illinois as being in violation of the constitution of that State, requiring equal and uniform taxation. The state court having decided that the progressive feature did not violate the constitution of the State, the case came to this court upon the contention that the establishment of a progressive rate was a denial both of due process of law and of the equal protection of the laws within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. These complaints were held to be untenable. In the course of its opinion the court, speaking through Mr. Justice McKenna, after briefly adverting to the history of inheritance and legacy taxes
Opinion of the Court.
in other countries, referred to their adoption in many of the States of the Union as follows (pp. 287–288):
“In the United States they were enacted in Pennsylvania in 1826; Maryland, 1844; Delaware, 1869; West Virginia, 1887, and still inore recently in Connecticut, New Jersey, Ohio, Maine, Massachusetts, 1891; Tennessee in 1891, chapter 25, now repealed by chapter 174, Acts, 1893. They were adopted in North Carolina in 1846, but repealed in 1883. Were enacted in Virginia in 1814, repealed in 1835, reënacted in 1863, and repealed in 1884. Other States have also enacted them.--Minnesota by constitutional provision.
“The constitutionality of the taxes have been declared, and the principles upon which they are based explained in United States v. Perkins, 163 U. S. 625, 628; Strode v. Commonwealth, 52 Penn. St. 181; Eyre v. Jucob, 1+ Grat. 422; School
field v. Lynchburg, 78 Virginia, 366; State v. Dalrymple, 70 Maryland, 294; Clapp v. Mason, 94 U, S. 589; In re Merriam's Estate, 141 N. Y. 479; State v. Tumlin, 86 Maine, 495; State v. Alston, 94 Tennessee, 674; In re Wilmerding, 117 California, 281; Dos Passos Collateral Inheritance Tax, 20; Minot v. Winthrop, 162 Mass. 113; Gelsthorpe v. Furnell, (Montana) 51 Pac. Rep. 267. See also Scholey v. Rew, 23 Wall. 331.
“ It is not necessary to review these cases or state at length the reasoning by which they are supported. They are based on two principles : 1. An inheritance tax is not one on property, but one on the succession. 2. The right to take property by devise or descent is a creature of the law, and not a natural right - a privilege, and therefore the authority which confers it may impose conditions upon it. From these principles it is deduced that the States may tax the privilege, discriminate between relatives, and between these and strangers, and grant exemptions; and are not precluded from this power by the provisions of the respective state constitutions requiring uniformity and equality of taxation."
Thus, looking over the whole field, and considering death duties in the order in which we have reviewed them, that is, in the Roman and ancient law, in that of modern France, Germany and other continental countries, in England and those of
Opinion of the Court.
her colonies where such laws have been enacted, in the legislation of the United States and the several States of the Union, the following appears: Although different modes of assessing such duties prevail, and although they have different accidental names, such as probate duties, stamp duties, taxes on the transaction, or the act of passing of an estate or a succession, legacy taxes, estate taxes or privilege taxes, nevertheless tax laws of this nature in all countries rest in their essence upon the principle that death is the generating source from which the particular taxing power takes its being and that it is the power to transmit, or the transmission from the dead to the living, on which such taxes are more immediately rested.
Having ascertained the nature of death duties, the first question which arises is this : Can the Congress of the United States levy a tax of that character? The proposition that it cannot rests upon the assumption that, since the transmission of property by death is exclusively subject to the regulating authority of the several States, therefore the levy by Congress of a tax on inheritances or legacies, in any form, is beyond the power of Congress, and is an interference by the National Government with a matter which falls alone within the reach of state legislation. It is to be remarked that this proposition denies to Congress the right to tax a subject matter which was conceded to be within the scope of its power very early in the history of the government. The act of 1797, which ordained legacy taxes, was adopted at a time when the founders of our government and framers of our Constitution were actively participating in public affairs, thus giving a practical construction to the Constitution which they had helped to establish. Even the then members of the Congress who had not been delegates to the convention, which framed the Constitution, must have had a keen appreciation of the influences which had shaped the Constitution and the restrictions which it embodied, since all questions which related to the Constitution and its adoption must have been, at that early date, vividly impressed on their minds. It would, under these conditions, be indeed surprising if a tax should have been levied without question upon objects deemed to be beyond the grasp of Congress because exclusively within state authority.
Opinion of the Court.
It is, moreover, worthy of remark that similar taxes have at other periods and for a considerable time been enforced; and, although their constitutionalty was assailed on other grounds held unsound by this court, the question of the want of authority of Congress to levy a tax on inheritances and legacies was never urged against the acts in question. Whilst these considerations are of great weight, let us for the moment put them aside to consider the reasoning upon which the proposition denying the power in Congress to impose death duties must rest.
Confusion of thought may arise unless it be always remembered that, fundamentally considered, it is the power to transmit or the transmission or receipt of property by death which is the subject levied upon by all death duties. The qualification of such taxes as privilege taxes, or describing them as levied on a privilege, may also produce misconception, unless the import of these words be accurately understood. They have been used where the power of a state government to levy a particular form of inheritance or legacy tax has in some instances been assailed because of a constitutional limitation on the taxing power. Under these circumstances, the question has arisen whether, because of the power of the State to regulate the transmission of property by death, there did not therefore exist a less trammeled right to tax inheritances and legacies than obtained as to other subject-matters of taxation, and, upon the affirmative view being adopted, a tax upon inheritances or legacies for this reason has been spoken of as privilege taxation, or a tax on privileges. The conception, then, as to the privilege, whilst conceding fully that the occasion of the transmission or receipt of property by death is a usual subject of the taxing power, yet maintains that a wider discretion or privilege is vested in the States, because of the right to regulate. Courts which maintain this view have therefore treated death duties as disenthralled from limitations which would otherwise apply, if the privilege of regulation did not exist. The authorities which maintain this doctrine have been already referred to in the citation which we have made from Magoun v. Illinois Trust & Savings Bank, 170 U. S. 283, 288. An illustration is found in
Opinion of the Court.
United States v. Perkins, 163 U. S. 625, where the right of the State of New York to levy a tax on a legacy bequeathed to the Government of the United States was in part rested on the privilege enjoyed by the State of New York to regulate successions. Some state courts, on the other hand, have held that, despite the power of regulation, no greater privilege of taxation exists as to inheritance and legacy taxes than as to other property. Cope's Appeal, 191 Penn. St. 1; State v: Ferris, 53 Ohio St. 314; State v. Gorman, 40 Minn. 232; Curry v. Spencer, 61 N. H. 624. In State v. Switzler, 143 Missouri, 287, the power of the legislature of Missouri to levy a uniform tax upon the succession of estates was conceded, though such tax was declared not to be a tax upon property in the ordinary sense. The court nevertheless held that the particular tax in question, which was progressive. in rate, was invalid, because it violated a provision of the state constitution; the decision, in effect, being that because the legislature had the power to regulate successions, it was not thereby justified in levying a tax which was not sanctioned by the state constitution.
All courts and all governments, however, as we have already shown, conceive that the transmission of property occasioned by death, although differing from the tax on property as such, is, nevertheless, a usual subject of taxation. Of course, in considering the power of Congress to impose death duties, we eliminate all thought of a greater privilege to do so than exists as to any other form of taxation, as the right to regulate successions is vested in the States and not in Congress.
It is not denied that, subject to a compliance with the limitations in the Constitution, the taxing power of Congress extends to all usual objects of taxation. Indeed, as said in the License Tax Cases, 5 Wall. 462, 471, after referring to the limitations expressed in the Constitution, “ Thus limited, and thus only, it (the taxing power of Congress) reaches every subject, and may be exercised at discretion.” The limitation which would exclude from Congress the right to tax inheritances and legacies is made to depend upon the contention that as the power to regulate successions is lodged solely in the several States, therefore Congress is without authority to tax the transmission or