430 U.S. 274 (1977), 76-29, Complete Auto Transit, Inc. v. Brady

Docket Nº:No. 76-29
Citation:430 U.S. 274, 97 S.Ct. 1076, 51 L.Ed.2d 326
Party Name:Complete Auto Transit, Inc. v. Brady
Case Date:March 07, 1977
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 274

430 U.S. 274 (1977)

97 S.Ct. 1076, 51 L.Ed.2d 326

Complete Auto Transit, Inc.



No. 76-29

United States Supreme Court

March 7, 1977

Argued January 19, 1977



A Mississippi tax on the privilege of doing business in the State held not to violate the Commerce Clause when it is applied to an interstate activity (here, the transportation by motor carrier in Mississippi to Mississippi dealers of cars manufactured outside the State) with a substantial nexus with the taxing State, is fairly apportioned, does not discriminate against interstate commerce, and is fairly related to the services provided by the State. Spector Motor Service v. O'Connor, 340 U.S. 602, overruled. Pp. 279-289.

330 So.2d 268, affirmed.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

BLACKMUN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Once again we are presented with

"the perennial problem of the validity of a state tax for the privilege of carrying on, within a state, certain activities" related to a corporation's operation of an interstate business.

Colonial Pipeline Co. v. Traigle, 421 U.S. 100, 101 (1975), quoting Memphis Gas Co. v. Stone, 335 U.S. 80, 85 (1948). The issue in this case is whether [97 S.Ct. 1077] Mississippi runs afoul of the Commerce Clause, U.S.Const., Art. I, § 8, cl. 3, when it applies the tax it imposes on "the privilege of . . . doing business" within the State to appellant's activity in interstate commerce. The Supreme Court of Mississippi unanimously sustained the tax against

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appellant's constitutional challenge. 330 So.2d 268 (1976). We noted probable jurisdiction in order to consider anew the applicable principles in this troublesome area. 429 U.S. 813 (1976).


The taxes in question are sales taxes assessed by the Mississippi State Tax Commission against the appellant, Complete Auto Transit, Inc., for the period from August 1, 1968, through July 31, 1972. The assessments were made pursuant to the following Mississippi statutes:

There is hereby levied and assessed and shall be collected, privilege taxes for the privilege of engaging or continuing in business or doing business within this state to be determined by the application of rates against gross proceeds of sales or gross income or values, as the case may be, as provided in the following sections.

Miss.Code Ann., 1942, § 10105 (1972 Supp.), as amended.1

Upon every person operating a pipeline, railroad, airplane, bus, truck, or any other transportation business for the transportation of persons or property for compensation or hire between points within this State, there is hereby levied, assessed, and shall be collected, a tax equal to five per cent of the gross income of such business. . . .

§ 10109(2), as amended.2

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Any person liable for the tax is required to add it to the gross sales price and, "insofar as practicable," to collect it at the time the sales price is collected. § 10117, as amended.3

Appellant is a Michigan corporation engaged in the business of transporting motor vehicles by motor carrier for General Motors Corporation. General Motors assembles outside Mississippi vehicles that are destined for dealers within the State. The vehicles are then shipped by rail to Jackson, Miss., where, usually within 48 hours, they are loaded onto appellant's trucks and transported by appellant to the Mississippi dealers. App. 478, 78-79, 86-87. Appellant is paid on a contract basis for the transportation from the railhead to the dealers.4 Id. at 50-51, 68.

[97 S.Ct. 1078] By letter dated October 5, 1971, the Mississippi Tax Commission

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informed appellant that it was being assessed taxes and interest totaling $122,160.59 for the sales of transportation services during the three-year period from August 1, 1968, through July 31, 1971.5 Remittance within 10 days was requested. Id. at 9-10. By similar letter dated December 28, 1972, the Commission advised appellant of an assessment of $42,990.89 for the period from August 1, 1971, through July 31, 1972. Id. at 11-12. Appellant paid the assessments under protest and, in April, 1973, pursuant to § 10121.1, as amended, of the 1942 Code (now § 27-657 of the 1972 Code), instituted the present refund action in the Chancery Court of the First Judicial District of Hinds County.

Appellant claimed that its transportation was but one part of an interstate movement, and that the taxes assessed and paid were unconstitutional as applied to operations in interstate commerce. App. 4, 7. The Chancery Court, in an unreported opinion, sustained the assessments. Id. at 99-102.

The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed. It concluded:

It will be noted that Taxpayer has a large operation in this State. It is dependent upon the State for police protection and other State services the same as other citizens. It should pay its fair share of taxes so long, but only so long, as the tax does not discriminate against interstate commerce, and there is no danger of interstate commerce being smothered by cumulative taxes of several states. There is no possibility of any other state duplicating the tax involved in this case.

330 So.2d at 272.

Appellant, in its complaint in Chancery Court, did not allege that its activity which Mississippi taxes does not have a

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sufficient nexus with the State; or that the tax discriminates against interstate commerce; or that the tax is unfairly apportioned; or that it is unrelated to services provided by the State.6 No such claims were made before the Mississippi Supreme Court, and although appellant argues here that a tax on "the privilege of engaging in interstate commerce" creates an unacceptable risk of discrimination and undue burdens, Brief for Appellant 20-27, it does not claim that discrimination or undue burdens exist in fact.

Appellant's attack is based solely on decisions of this Court holding that a tax on the "privilege" of engaging in an activity in the State may not be applied to an activity that is part of interstate commerce. See, e.g., Spector Motor Service v. O'Connor, 340 U.S. 602 (1951); Freeman v. Hewit, 329 U.S. 249 (1946). This rule looks only to the fact that the incidence of the tax is the "privilege of doing business"; it deems irrelevant any consideration of the practical effect of the tax. The rule reflects an underlying philosophy that interstate commerce [97 S.Ct. 1079] should enjoy a sort of "free trade" immunity from state taxation.7

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Appellee, in its turn, relies on decisions of this Court stating that

[i]t was not the purpose of the commerce clause to relieve those engaged in interstate commerce from their just share of state tax burden, even though it increases the cost of doing the business,

Western Live Stock v. Bureau of Revenue, 303 U.S. 250, 254 (1938). These decisions8 have considered not the formal language of the tax statute, but rather its practical effect, and have sustained a tax against Commerce Clause challenge when the tax is applied to an activity with a substantial nexus with the taxing State, is fairly apportioned, does not discriminate against interstate commerce, and is fairly related to the services provided by the state.

Over the years, the Court has applied this practical analysis in approving many types of tax that avoided running afoul of the prohibition against taxing the "privilege of doing business," but, in each instance, it has refused to overrule the prohibition. Under the present state of the law, the Spector rule, as it has come to be known, has no relationship to economic realities. Rather, it stands only as a trap for the unwary draftsman.


The modern origin of the Spector rule may be found in Freeman v. Hewit, supra.9 At issue in Freeman was the application

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of an Indiana tax upon "the receipt of the entire gross income" of residents and domiciliaries. 329 U.S. at 250. Indiana sought to impose this tax on income generated when a trustee of an Indiana estate instructed his local stockbroker to sell certain securities. The broker arranged with correspondents in New York to sell the securities on the New York Stock Exchange. The securities were sold, and the New York brokers, after deducting expenses and commission, transmitted the proceeds to the Indiana broker, who, in turn, delivered them, less his commission, to the trustee. The Indiana Supreme Court sustained the tax, but this Court reversed.

Mr. Justice Frankfurter, speaking for five Members of the Court, announced a blanket prohibition against any state taxation imposed directly on an interstate transaction. He explicitly deemed unnecessary to the decision of the case any showing of [97 S.Ct. 1080] discrimination against interstate commerce or error in apportionment of the tax. Id. at 254, 256-257. He recognized that a State could constitutionally tax local manufacture, impose license taxes on corporations doing business in the State, tax property within the State, and tax the privilege of residence in the State and measure the privilege by net income, including that derived from interstate commerce. Id. at 255. Nevertheless, a direct tax on interstate sales, even if fairly apportioned and nondiscriminatory, was held to be unconstitutional per se.

Mr. Justice Rutledge, in a lengthy concurring opinion, argued that the tax should be judged by its economic effects, rather than by its formal phrasing. After reviewing the Court's prior decisions, he concluded:

The fact is that "direct incidence" of a state tax or regulation . . . has long since been discarded as being in itself sufficient to outlaw state legislation.

Id. at 265-266. In his view, a state tax is unconstitutional

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only if the activity lacks the necessary connection with the taxing state to give "jurisdiction to tax," id. at 271, or if the tax discriminates against...

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