Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. United States, 157

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation92 L.Ed. 968,68 S.Ct. 747,333 U.S. 611
Docket NumberNo. 157,157
Decision Date19 April 1948

333 U.S. 611
68 S.Ct. 747
92 L.Ed. 968



No. 157.
Argued Dec. 10, 1947.
Decided April 19, 1948.

Page 612

Mr. Alfred E. Lo Presti, of Boston, Mass., for petitioner.

Mr. Albert E. Hallett, of Chicago, Ill., for the State of Illinois, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

Helen Goodner, of Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice RUTLEDGE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case is for all practical purposes a renewal of the litigation recently here in State of Illinois ex rel. v. United States, 328 U.S. 8, 66 S.Ct. 841, and the companion case of People of State of Illinois ex rel. Gordon v. Campbell, 329 U.S. 362, 67 S.Ct. 340. The former unanimously held that the United States has priority, by virtue of Rev.Stat. § 3466, 31 U.S.C. § 191, 32 U.S.C.A. § 191, for payment from ani nsolvent debtor's estate of federal insurance contribution taxes under Title 8

Page 613

and unemployment compensation taxes under Title 9 of the Social Security Act, 49 Stat. 620, 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 1001 et seq., 1101 et seq., as against a state's claim for unemployment compensation taxes imposed by its statute conforming to the federal act's requirements. The Campbell case, which was reargued on other issues, rested on this ruling for disposition of the common issue concerning the effect of § 3466.

The facts are substantially identical with those in Illinois v. United States, 1 except in two respects. One is that the fund available here for distribution is more than sufficient to pay either the Title 8 or the Title 9 taxes, though inadequate to pay both, while in Illinois v. United States the fund was not large enough to satisfy either tax in full. Here too the debtor's assignee has paid to the commonwealth the full amount of its claim, 2 while in the Illinois cases the fund remained in the assignee's hands for distribution.

The District Court sustained the federal priority for capital stock and Title 8 taxes in full, and for 10 per cent of the Title 9 claim. It therefore deferred payment of any part of the state's claim until those claims were fully paid. But the court held the United States not

Page 614

entitled to priority for the remaining 90 per cent of the Title 9 claim, on the ground that Title 9, § 902, 3 gives the assignee 'the alternative right' to pay that amount to an approved state unemployment fund. Accordingly the judgment ordered Massachusetts to pay over to the United States, from the $803.72 received from the assignee, sufficient funds to satisfy in full the federal priorities sustained, and to retain the small balance remaining after making those payments to apply on its claim for 90 per cent of the Title 9 taxes. 65 F.Supp. 763. This action was taken in the view that, while our previous decisions had sustained the federal priority for the capital stock and Title 8 taxes, they had not determined the question for Title 9 claims.4

However, on appeal by both parties, the Circuit Court of Appeals held the United States entitled, under the Illinois rulings, to priority for the full amount of all its claims, including the Title 9 taxes. That court therefore affirmed the District Court's judgment except insofar as it denied the Government's Title 9 claim. As to this it reversed the District Court's ruling. 160 F.2d 614.

Page 615

Because of the obvious confusion concerning the effects of our prior decisions and the asserted differences betwen this case and the Illinois cases, certiorari was granted. 332 U.S. 754, 68 S.Ct. 66.


Massachusetts seeks to retain the entire $803.72 she has received, in priority to all the federal claims. She agrees with the district court that § 902 gives the taxpayer an 'optional right' of payment, but does not accept its allocation creating priorities for all federal claims except 90 per cent of the Title 9 taxes. To sustain this broad claim would require reversal of both of the Illinois decisions. In no other way, on the facts, could Massachusetts retain the whole amount she was paid.5

Illinois as amicus curiae takes a narrower position, conceding that the Illinois cases stand as decisive adjudications of priority for Title 8 taxes but disputing that effect for Title 9 claims.6 This position seeks an allocation paying the state's claim after the Title 8 and other federal claims, including 10 per cent of the Title 9 taxes, but before or rather in 'satisfaction' of the remaining 90 per cent of them.7

Page 616

Notwithstanding their substantial differences, the two states rest their respective positions on the same basic arguments, which upon examination turn out to be identical with those vigorously presented by Illinois in the earlier cases, except for wording and detail. Much is made of the fact that here the debtor's assignee has paid to the commonwealth the full amount of its claim, while in Illinois v. United States, the fund remained in the assignee's hands. Both states urge that § 902 gives the taxpayer, and here his assignee, the 'optional right' of payment to the state. Moreover, with respect to the requirement of Rev.Stat. § 3466 that 'the debts due the United States shall be first satisfied,' it is said that payment to the state with resulting credit to the United States for 90 per cent of the Title 9 claim 'satisfies' the Government's debt as much as payment to it in cash.

In the Illinois cases the foundation for the state's claim to be paid in preference to any of the federal claims lay in the credit provision of § 902, which is the identical provision for 'optional payment.' There was no question whatever that § 902 gave the taxpayer the 'alternae right.' But the precise issue in both cases was whether that right had been cut off by Rev.Stat. § 3466 when he became insolvent.

Obviously there could have been but little point or effect to our decisions if, despite them, the assignee could have turned around immediately and deprived the Government of the priorities established simply by exercising a right to make the optional payment to the state. Nor would the decisions have been much more sensible or

Page 617

effective, had they purported to sustain the federal priorities when the assignee has retained the fund, but to disallow them, if he has paid the state before the federal claims are filed. We made no such ineffective or capricious rulings. The decision was broadly that by intervention of the insolvency and the consequent bringing of Rev.Stat. § 3466 into play, the taxpayer's right to pay the state and take federal credit had been cut off.8

Our decisions went to the merits of that right and not merely to rule that the state was not a proper party to enforce its exercise. The taxes due the United States were held to be debts; and by virtue of § 3466 the debtor's prior obligation attaching as of the date of his insolvency was to the Government, not to the state. It followed necessarily that the assignee could not 'satisfy' it by paying the state and giving the Government 'credit.' This was the very question at issue and the one adjudicated. The 'alternate right' contention and the one that 'satisfied' in § 3466 means 'credit' are only verbal redressings of the basic issue decided in the Illinois cases.


This is as true of the argument's bearing on Illinois' narrower position as it is for Massachusetts' broader one. But Illinois, apparently with Massachusetts' support, brings forward to sustain the less sweeping attack the additional contention that the Illinois decisions did not adjudicate Title 9 priority, although purporting to do so. Moreover, the facts present this narrower issue of distinguishing between Title 9 and other federal claims in sharper factual focus than did the Illinois cases. For

Page 618

if the capital stock and Title 8 claims are first paid in full, as the District Court required, a small balance of the fund will remain, to be applied either in part payment of the federal Title 9 claim or in some form of allocation between it and Massachusetts' claim. This was not true of Illinois v. United States, or indeed of Illinois v. Campbell, in the posture in which that case was brought here.

The principal argument is that the Title 9 taxes, though litigated in the Illinois courts, were not involved on the facts in the Illinois cases as they came to and were decided by this Court. Hence it is said we did not acquire jurisdiction over the Title 9 claims. The argument is correct concerning Illinois v. Campbell.9 But it is surprising as applied to Illinois v. United States, in view of the state supreme court's adverse decision on the Title 9 issue; Illinois' explicit application for certiorari on that issue and argument on the merits here to reverse the state court's decision;10 the necessity on the facts for the state

Page 619

to bring the question up and secure reversal in order to establish its claim;11 and finally our opinion's clear and explicit terms, indeed emphasis, in deciding the Title 9 issue, together with the Title 8 one, against Illinois.12

The idea that the state court decided only the Title 8 issue completely misconceives its action, and serves only to confuse the judgment in that case with the one in Illinois v. Campbell. Indeed it seeks to infuse into the former the latter's denial of Title 9 priority. Not only is this wholly incompatible with Illinois' earlier position; it ignores the fact that the state court disposed of the Title 9 issue in both cases, but in opposite ways on entirely different facts and legal issues.

Page 620

In Illinois v. Campbell, the state court did not reach the basic question of the force of Rev.Stat. § 3466 to create priority for federal Title 9 claims; rather, it expressly avoided deciding that question. 391 Ill. 29, 32, 62 N.E.2d 537. This was because the insolvent's assets were in the hands of a court- appointed receiver, id. 391 Ill. at page 31, 62 N.E.2d at page 538, and in that...

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