377 U.S. 341 (1964), 389, Department of Revenue v. James B. Beam Distilling Co.

Docket Nº:No. 389
Citation:377 U.S. 341, 84 S.Ct. 1247, 12 L.Ed.2d 362
Party Name:Department of Revenue v. James B. Beam Distilling Co.
Case Date:June 01, 1964
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 341

377 U.S. 341 (1964)

84 S.Ct. 1247, 12 L.Ed.2d 362

Department of Revenue


James B. Beam Distilling Co.

No. 389

United States Supreme Court

June 1, 1964

Argued March 23, 1964



Respondent is a distributor of whisky produced in Scotland and shipped through United States ports directly to bonded warehouses in Kentucky. State law provided for a tax of ten cents per gallon on the importation of whisky into the State, which tax was collected while the Scotch whisky was in unbroken packages in the importer's possession. Respondent's claim for refund of the taxes on the basis of violation of the Export-Import Clause of the Constitution was upheld by the highest state court.

Held: A tax on the whisky, which retained its character as an import in the original package, was clearly proscribed by the Export-Import Clause, which was not, insofar as intoxicants are concerned, repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment. Pp. 341-346.

367 S.W.2d 267 affirmed.

STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires consideration of the relationship between the Export-Import Clause1 and the Twenty-first Amendment2 of the Constitution.

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[84 S.Ct. 1248] The respondent, a Kentucky producer of distilled spirits, is also the sole distributor in the United States of "Gilbey's Spey Royal" Scotch whisky. This whisky is produced in Scotland and is shipped via the ports of Chicago or New Orleans directly to the respondent's bonded warehouses in Kentucky. It is subsequently sold by the respondent to customers in domestic markets throughout the United States.

A Kentucky law provides:

No person shall ship or transport or cause to be shipped or transported into the state any distilled spirits from points without the state without first obtaining a permit from the department and paying a tax of ten cents on each proof gallon contained in the shipment.

KRS 243.680(2)(a). Under the authority of this statute, the Kentucky Department of Revenue, petitioner, required the respondent to pay a tax of 10 cents on each proof gallon of whisky which it thus imported from Scotland. It is not disputed that, as stated by the Kentucky Court of Appeals,

the tax was collected while the whisky remained in unbroken packages in the hands of the original importer and prior to resale or use by the importer.

The respondent filed a claim for refund of the taxes, upon the ground that their imposition violated the Export-Import Clause of the Constitution. The Kentucky Tax Commission and a Kentucky Circuit Court denied the claim, but, on appeal, the Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld it. 367 S.W.2d 267. We granted certiorari to consider the

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constitutional issue which the case presents. 375 U.S. 811.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals held that the tax in question, although an occupational or license tax in form, is a tax on imports in fact. "[T]he incidence of the tax is the act of transporting or shipping the distilled spirits under consideration into this state." 367 S.W.2d at 270. The court further held that the tax cannot be characterized as an inspection measure in view of the fact that neither the statute nor the regulations implementing it provide for any actual inspection. Concluding, therefore, that the tax falls squarely within the interdiction of the Export-Import Clause, the court held that this provision of the Constitution has not been repealed, insofar as intoxicants are concerned, by the Twenty-first Amendment.3 Accordingly, the court ruled that the respondent was entitled to a refund of the taxes it had paid. We agree with the Kentucky Court of Appeals, and affirm the judgment before us.

The tax here in question is clearly of a kind prohibited by the Export-Import Clause. Brown v. Maryland, 12 Wheat. 419. As this Court stated almost a century ago in Low v. Austin, 13 Wall. 29, a case involving a California ad valorem tax on wine imported from France and stored in original cases in a San Francisco warehouse,

the goods imported do not lose their character as imports . . . until they have passed from the control of the importer or been broken up by him from their original cases. Whilst retaining their character as imports, a tax upon them, in any shape, is within the constitutional prohibition.

Id. at 34. See Hooven & Allison Co. v. Evatt, 324 U.S. 652.

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As we noted in Hostetter v. Idlewild Bon Voyage Liquor Corp., ante, p. 330,

[t]his Court made clear in the early years following adoption of the Twenty-first Amendment that, by virtue of its provisions, a State is totally unconfined by traditional Commerce Clause limitations when it restricts the importation of intoxicants destined for use, distribution, or consumption within its borders.4

What is involved in the present case, however, is not the generalized authority given to Congress by the Commerce Clause, but a constitutional provision which flatly prohibits any State from imposing a tax upon imports from abroad.

We have often indicated the difference in this respect between the local taxation of imports in the original package and the like taxation of goods either before or after their shipment in interstate commerce. In the one case, the immunity derives from the prohibition upon taxation of the imported merchandise itself. In the other, the immunity is only from such local regulation by taxation as interferes with the constitutional power of Congress to regulate the commerce, whether the taxed merchandise is in the original package or not.

Hooven & Allison Co. v. Evatt, 324 U.S. 652, 665-666.

This Court has never so much as intimated that the Twenty-first Amendment has operated to permit what the Export-Import Clause precisely and explicitly forbids. In State Board v. Young's Market Co., 299 U.S. 59, 62, the Court said that the Twenty-first Amendment "abrogated the right to import free [from Missouri or Wisconsin, under the Commerce Clause] so far as concerns intoxicating liquors." In that case, the appellee had argued in its brief that such a holding would imply an invalidation of the Export-Import Clause as well,5 but

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the Court's opinion was careful to note,

[t]he plaintiffs insist that to sustain the exaction of the importer's license fee would involve a declaration that the amendment has, in respect to liquor, freed the states from all restrictions upon the police power to be found in other provisions of the Constitution. The question for decision requires no such generalization.

Id. at 64. In Gordon v. Texas, 355 U.S. 369, the Court, in a brief per curiam, affirmed a Texas conviction for illegal possession of 11 bottles of rum which had been imported without a permit and to which the required Texas tax stamps were not affixed. The state tax in that case had been held to be not a tax on imports.6 It is clear that the gravamen of the offense in Gordon was the failure to obtain, or even apply for, a permit as required by state law. Such permits, in addition to other functions, serve to channelize the traffic in liquor, and thus to prevent diversion of that traffic into unauthorized channels. In the present case, the respondent has both applied for and obtained the requisite permit. The relief it requests is not the abrogation of that requirement, but simply a refund of the import tax.

To sustain the tax which Kentucky has imposed in this case would require nothing short of squarely holding that the Twenty-first Amendment has completely repealed the Export-Import Clause so far as intoxicants are concerned.7 Nothing in the language of the Amendment nor

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in its history leads to such an extraordinary conclusion. This Court has never intimated such a view, and, now that the claim for the first time is squarely presented, we expressly reject it.

We have no doubt that, under the Twenty-first Amendment, Kentucky could not only regulate, but could completely prohibit, the importation of some intoxicants, or of all intoxicants, destined for distribution, use, or consumption within its borders. There can surely be no doubt, either, of Kentucky's plenary power to regulate and control, by taxation or otherwise, the...

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