435 U.S. 444 (1978), 76-1500, Massachusetts v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 76-1500
Citation:435 U.S. 444, 98 S.Ct. 1153, 55 L.Ed.2d 403
Party Name:Massachusetts v. United States
Case Date:March 29, 1978
Court:United States Supreme Court

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435 U.S. 444 (1978)

98 S.Ct. 1153, 55 L.Ed.2d 403



United States

No. 76-1500

United States Supreme Court

March 29, 1978

Argued December 6, 1977




As part of a comprehensive program to recoup the costs of federal aviation programs from those who use the national airsystem, Congress enacted the Airport and Airway Revenue Act of 1970, which imposes an annual "flat fee" registration tax on all civil aircraft, including those owned by the States and by the Federal Government, that fly in the navigable airspace of the United States. The Act also imposes a 7 cent per gallon tax on aircraft fuel, which, together with a 5 cent per pound aircraft tire and 10 cent per pound tube tax and the registration tax, was intended to reflect the cost of benefits from the programs to noncommercial general aircraft, but States were exempted from the fuel, tire, and tube taxes. After the registration tax was collected under protest from it with respect to a helicopter it used exclusively for police functions, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts instituted this refund action, contending that the United States may not constitutionally impose a tax that directly affects the essential and traditional state function of operating a police force. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground, inter alia, that the registration tax was a user fee which did not implicate the constitutional doctrine of implied immunity of state government from federal taxation. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The registration tax does not violate the implied immunity of a state government from federal taxation. Pp 453-470

(a) A State enjoys no constitutional immunity from a nondiscriminatory federal revenue measure which operates only to ensure that each member of a class of special beneficiaries of a federal program pays a reasonable approximation of its fair share of the cost of the program to the Federal Government. Pp. 454-463.

(b) Even if it were feasible for the Federal Government to recover all costs of a program through charges for measurable amounts of use of its facilities, rather than by imposing a flat fee, so long as the federal taxes imposed do not discriminate against state functions, are based on a fair approximation of the State's use of the facilities, and are structured to produce revenues that will not exceed the total cost to the Federal Government of the benefits supplied, there can be no substantial basis for a claim that the Federal Government may be using its

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taxing powers to control, unduly interfere with, or destroy a State's ability to perform essential services. Pp. 463-467.

(c) Here, the registration tax (1) is nondiscriminatory, since it applies not only to private users of the airways, but also to civil aircraft operated by the United States; (2) is, together with the 7 cent per gallon fuel tax and the 5 cent per pound tire and 1 cent per pound tube tax, a fair approximation of the cost of the benefits civil [98 S.Ct. 1156] aircraft receive from the federal programs, since, even though the taxes do not give weight to every factor affecting appropriate compensation for airport and airway use, the fuel tax and tire and tube tax are geared directly to use, whereas the registration tax is designed to give weight to factors affecting the level of use of the navigational facilities; and (3) is not excessive in relation to the cost of the Government benefits supplied, since not only have the user fees proved to be insufficient to cover the annual civil aviation outlays, but the States, being exempt from the fuel tax, pay far less than private noncommercial users of the airways. Pp. 467-470.

548 F.2d 33, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, and in Parts I, II-C, and III of which STEWART and POWELL, JJ., joined. STEWART and POWELL, JJ., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 470. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 471. BLACKMUN, J., took no part in the decision or consideration of the case.

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BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court. *

As part of a comprehensive program to recoup the costs of federal aviation programs from those who use the national airsystem, Congress in 1970 imposed an annual registration tax on all civil aircraft that fly in the navigable airspace of the United States. 26 U.S.C. § 4491.1 The constitutional question presented in this case is whether this tax, as applied to an aircraft owned by a State and used by it exclusively for police functions, violates the implied immunity of a state government from federal taxation. We hold that it does not.


Since the passage of the Air Commerce Act of 1926, 44 Stat. 568, the Federal Government has expended significant amounts of federal funds to develop and strengthen an integrated national airsystem and to make civil air transportation safe and practical. It has established, developed, and improved a wide array of air navigational facilities and services that benefit all aircraft flying in the Nation's navigable airspace,2 and it has also made substantial grants to state and local governments to assist in planning and developing airports.

In 1970, after an extended study of the national airsystem, Congress concluded that the level of annual federal outlays on aviation, while significant, had not been sufficient to permit the national airsystem to develop the capacity to cope satisfactorily with the current and projected growth in air transportation. To remedy this situation, Congress enacted two laws, the Airport [98 S.Ct. 1157] and Airway Development Act of 1970 (Development Act), 84 Stat. 219, and the Airport and Airway Revenue Act of 1970 (Revenue Act), 84 Stat. 236, which together constitute a comprehensive program substantially to expand and improve the national airport and airway system over the decade beginning July 1, 1970. In the Development Act, Congress provided for vastly increased federal expenditures both for airport planning and development and for the further expansion of federal navigational services. More importantly for present purposes, the Revenue Act adopted several measures to ensure that federal outlays that benefited the civil users of the airways would, to a substantial extent, be financed by taxing measures imposed on those civil users.3

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The Revenue Act, therefore, enacted for the first time, or increased, several taxes on civil aviation. Congress conceived of each of these revenue measures as user fees, and calculated that they would produce revenues that would defray a significant and increasing percentage of the civil share of the annual total federal airport and airway expenditures for the fiscal years 1970 to 1979.4 To assure that the revenues from these user taxes would be expended only for the expansion, improvement, and maintenance of the air transportation system, an Airport and Airway Trust Fund was created, and Congress provided that the amount of revenue generated by the aviation user charges would, during the 1970's, be paid into this trust fund, as would any money appropriated from general revenues for aviation purposes.5 Revenue Act, § 208, 84 Stat. 250, 49 U.S.C. § 1742; see H.R.Rep. No. 91-601, p. 41 (1969) (hereinafter H.R.Rep.); S.Rep. No. 91-706, pp. 23-25 (1970) (hereinafter S.Rep.).

The financing measures in the Revenue Act are intended to promote two purposes. First, they are designed to serve the congressional policy of having those who especially benefit from Government activity help bear the cost. See H.R.Rep.

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38; S.Rep. 5. Second, the financing provisions are intended to ensure that the capacity of the national air system would not again be found to be insufficient to meet the demands of increasing use. Congress believed that the inadequacy in past levels of investment in aviation had been due to the substantial competition from nonaviation budgetary requests. See H.R.Rep. 3. The trust fund and the user fees were, therefore, established to provide funding for aviation that would "generally match and grow with the demand" for use of the airways. Id. at 8.

The tax challenged in this case is one of several adopted in the Revenue Act, the annual aircraft registration tax. Revenue Act, § 206, 26 U.S.C. § 4491. It imposes an annual "flat fee" tax on all civil aircraft [98 S.Ct. 1158] -- including those owned by State and National Governments6 -- that fly in the navigable

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airspace of the United States.7 The amount of the annual charge depends upon the type and weight of the aircraft: those with piston-driven engines pay $25 plus 2 cents per pound of the maximum certificated takeoff weight in excess of 2,500 pounds, whereas turbine-powered aircraft pay $25 plus 3 1/2 cents per pound of the maximum certificated takeoff weight. See n. 1, supra.

As is apparent from both the rate of tax in § 441 and the legislative history of the Revenue Act, Congress did not contemplate that the annual registration tax would generate significant amounts of revenue, but rather that the bulk of the funds generated by the system would come from other user taxes,8 each of which is related more directly [98 S.Ct. 1159] to the level

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of use of the navigable airspace. Thus, commercial aviation's share of the cost of the federal activities would be raised primarily through an 8% tax on the price of domestic air passenger tickets, see Revenue Act, § 203, 26 U.S.C. § 4261; a $3 "head tax" on international flights originating in the United States, ibid.; and a 5% tax on the cost of...

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