Evans v. Gore

Decision Date01 June 1920
Docket NumberNo. 654,654
Citation253 U.S. 245,11 A.L.R. 519,40 S.Ct. 550,64 L.Ed. 887
PartiesEVANS v. GORE, Acting Collector of Internal Revenue
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. William Marshall Bullitt and Edmund F. Trabue, both of Louisville, Ky., for plaintiff in error.

Mr. Assistant Attorney General Frierson, for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice VAN DEVANTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is an action to recover money paid under protest as a tax alleged to be forbidden by the Constitution.

The plaintiff is the United States District Judge for the Western District of Kentucky, and holds that office under an appointment by the President made in 1899 with the advice and consent of the Senate. The tax which he calls in question was levied under the act of February 24, 1919, c. 18, 40 Stat. 1062, on his net income for the year 1918, as computd under that act. His compensation or salary as District Judge was included in the computation. Had it been excluded he would not have called on to pay any income tax for that year. The inclusion was in obedience to a provision in section 213 (Comp. St. Ann. Supp. 1919, § 6336 1/8ff), requiring the computation to embrace all gains, profits, income and the like, 'including in the case of the President of the United States, the judges of the Supreme and inferior courts of the United States [and others] * * * the compensation received as such.' Whether he could be subjected to such a tax in respect of his salary, consistently with the Constitution, is the matter in issue. If it be resolved against the tax he will be entitled to recover what he paid; otherwise his action must fail. It did fail in the District Court. 262 Fed. 550.

The Constitution establishes three great co-ordinate departments of the national government—the legislative, the executive, and the judicial—and distributes among them the powers confided to that government by the people. Each department is dealt with in a separate article, the legislative in the first, the executive in the second and the judicial in the third. Our present concern is chiefly with the third article. It defines the judicial power, vests it in one Supreme Court and such inferior courts as Congress may from time to time ordain and establish, and declares:

'The judges, both of the Supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good behavior, and shall, at stated times, receive for their services, a compensation, which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office.'

The plaintiff insists that the provision in section 213 which subjects him to a tax in respect of his compensation as a judge by its necessary operation and effect diminishes that compensation and therefore is repugnant to the constitutional limitation just quoted.

Stated in its broadest aspect, the contention involves the power to tax the compensation of federal judges in general, and also the salary of the President, as to which the Constitution (article 2, § 1, cl. 6) contains a similar limitation. Because of the individual relation of the members of this court to the question, thus broadly stated, we cannot but regret that its solution falls to us; and this although each member has been paying the tax in respect of his salary voluntarily and in regular course. But jurisdiction of the present case cannot be declined or renounced. The plaintiff was entitled by law to invoke our decision on the question as respects his own compensation, in which no other judge can have any direct personal interest; and there was no other appellate tribunal to which under the law he could go. He brought the case here in due course, the government joined him in asking an early determination of the question involved, and both have been heard at the bar and through printed briefs. In this situation, the only course open to us is to consider and decide the cause—a conclusion supported by precedents reaching back many years. Moreover, it appears that, when this taxing provision was adopted, Congress regarded it as of uncertain constitutionality and both contemplated and intended that the question should be settled by us in a case like this.1

With what purpose does the Constitution provide that the compensation of the judges 'shall not be diminished during their continuance in office?' Is it primarily to benefit the judges, or rather to promote the public weal by giving them that independence which makes for an impartial and courageous discharge of the judicial function? Does the provision merely forbid direct diminution, such as expressly reducing the compensation from a greater to a less sum per year, and thereby leave the way open for indirect, yet effective, diminution, such as withholding or calling back a part as a tax on the whole? Or, does it mean that the judge shall have a sure and continuing right to the compensation, whereon he confidently may rely for his support during his continuance in office, so that he need have no apprehension lest his situation in this regard may be changed to his disadvantage?

The Constitution was framed on the fundamental theory that a larger measure of liberty and justice would be assured by vesting the three great powers, the legislative, the executive, and the judicial, in separate departments, each relatively independent of the others; and it was recognized that without this independence if it was not made both real and enduring—the separation would fail of its purpose. All agreed that restraints and checks must be imposed to secure the requisite measure of independence; for otherwise the legislative department, inherently the strongest, might encroach on or even come to dominate the others, and the judicial, naturally the weakest, might be dwarfed or swayed by the other two, especially by the legislative.

The particular need for making the judiciary independent was elaborately pointed out by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist, No. 78, from which we excerpt the following:

'The executive not only dispenses the honors, but holds the sword of the community. The Legislature not only commands the purse, but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated. The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither force nor will, but merely judgment. * * * This simple view of the matter suggests several important consequences. It proves incontestably that the judiciary is beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments of power; that it can never attack with success either of the other two; and that all possible care is requisite to enable it to defend itself against their attacks.'

'The complete independence of the courts of justice is peculiarly essential in a limited Constitution. By a limited Constitution I understand one which contains certain specified exceptions to the legislative authority; such, for instance, as that it shall pass no bills of attainder, no ex post facto laws, and the like. Limitations of this kind can be preserved in practice no other way than through the medium of courts of justice, whose duty it must be to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void. Without this, all the reservations of particular rights or privileges would amount to nothing.'

At a later period John Marshall, whose rich experience as lawyer, legislator, and Chief Justice enabled him to speak as no one else could, tersely said (Debates Va. Conv. 1829-1831, pp. 616, 619):

'Advert, sir, to the duties of a judge. He has to pass between the government and the man whom that government is prosecuting; between the most powerful ini vidual in the community, and the poorest and most unpopular. It is of the last importance, that in the exercise of these duties he should observe the utmost fairness. Need I press the necessity of this? Does not every man feel that his own personal security and the security of his property depends on that fairness? The judicial department comes home in its effects to every man's fireside: it passes on his property, his reputation, his life, his all. Is it not to the last degree important that he should be rendered perfectly and completely independent, with nothing to influence or control him but God and his conscience? * * * I have always thought, from my earliest youth till now, that the greatest scourge an angry Heaven ever inflicted upon an ungrateful and a sinning people was an ignorant, a corrupt, or a dependent judiciary.'

More recently the need for this independence was illustrated by Mr. Wilson, now the President, in the following admirable statement:

'It is also necessary that there should be a judiciary endowed with substantial and independent powers and secure against all corrupting or perverting influences; secure, also, against the arbitrary authority of the administrative heads of the government.

'Indeed there is a sense in which it may be said that the whole efficacy and reality of constitutional government resides in its courts. Our definition of liberty is that it is the best practicable adjustment between the powers of the government and the privileges of the individual.'

'Our courts are the balance wheel of our whole constitutional system; and ours is the only constitutional system so balanced and controlled. Other constitutional systems lack complete poise and certainty of operation because they lack the support and interpretation of authoritative, undisputable courts of law. It is clear beyond all need of exposition that for the definite maintenance of constitutional understandings it is indispensable, alike for the preservation of the liberty of the individual and for the preservation of the integrity of the powers of the government, that there should be some nonpolitical forum in which those understandings can be impartially debated and...

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