First Agricultural National Bank of Berkshire County v. State Tax Commission

Decision Date17 June 1968
Docket NumberNo. 755,755
Citation20 L.Ed.2d 1138,392 U.S. 339,88 S.Ct. 2173
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Ronald H. Kessel, Boston, Mass., for appellant.

Alan J. Dimond, Boston, Mass., for appellee.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

The principal issue raised by this case concerns the extent to which States may tax a national bank. The Supreme Judicial Court for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts held that appellant, First Agricultural National Bank of Berkshire County, was subject to Massachusetts' recently enacted sales and use taxes1 on purchases for its own use of tangible personal property. For reasons to be stated we believe this decision was erroneous, and we reverse.

As long ago as 1819, in the historic case of M'Culloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 4 L.Ed. 579, this Court declared unconstitutional a state tax on the bank of the United States since, according to Chief Justice Marshall, this amounted to a 'tax on the operation of an instrument employed by the government of the Union to carry its powers into execution.' 4 Wheat., at 436 437. A long line of subsequent decisions by this Court has firmly established the proposition that the States are without power, unless authorized by Congress, to tax federally created, or, as they are presently called, national, banks. Owensboro Nat. Bank v. City of Owensboro, 173 U.S. 664, 668, 19 S.Ct. 537, 538, 43 L.Ed. 850; Des Moines Nat. Bank v. Fairweather, 263 U.S. 103, 106, 44 S.Ct. 23, 24, 68 L.Ed. 191; First Nat. Bank v. City of Hartford, 273 U.S. 548, 550, 47 S.Ct. 462, 463, 71 L.Ed. 767; Iowa-Des Moines Nat. Bank v. Bennett, 284 U.S. 239, 244, 52 S.Ct. 133, 135, 76 L.Ed. 265. As recently as 1966, Mr. Justice Fortas, speaking for a unanimous Court, thought this ancient principle so well established that he used national banks as an example in holding the American Red Cross immune from state taxation:

'In those respects in which the Red Cross differs from the usual government agency—e.g., in that its employees are not employees of the United States, and that government officials do not direct its everyday affairs—the Red Cross is like other institutions—e.g., national banks—whose status as tax-immune instrumentalities of the United States is beyond dispute.' Department of Employment v. United States, 385 U.S. 355, 360, 87 S.Ct. 464, 467, 17 L.Ed.2d 414. (Emphasis added.)

The decision below recognized the strong precedents against taxation, but the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was of the opinion that the status of national banks has been so changed by the establishment of the Federal Reserve System2 that they should no longer be considered nontaxable by the States as instrumentalities of the United States. Essentially the reasoning of the Supreme Judicial Court is that under present-day conditions and regulations there is no substantial difference between national banks and state banks; and the implication of this is, of course, that national banks lack any unique quality giving them the character of a federal instrumentality. Because of pertinent congressional legislation in the banking field, we find it unnecessary to reach the constitutional question of whether today national banks should be considered nontaxable as federal instrumentalities.

As will be seen, Congress has been far from reluctant to pass legislation in the banking field. There are important committees on banking and currency in both Houses which continually monitor banking affairs and propose new legislation when changes are felt to be needed. For purposes of this case, the most important piece of banking legislation is 12 U.S.C. § 5483 which originated as part of the Act of June 3, 1864, c. 106, § 41, 13 Stat. 111. This section allows state taxation of national banks in any one of four specified ways in addition to taxes on their real estate. Before this legislation was originally enacted in 1864, there was sharp controversy in the Congress over the extent to which the States should be allowed to tax national banks. A vocal opponent to any state taxation of national banks was the powerful Senator Sumner of Massachusetts, who said:

'If you allow the State to interfere with the proposed system (of national banks) in any way, may they not embarrass it? Where shall they stop? Where will you run a line?

'Now, sir, every consideration, every argument which goes to sustain this great judgment (M'Culloch v. Maryland) may be employed against the proposed concession to the States of the power to tax this national institution in any particular, whether directly or indirectly.' Cong. Globe, 38th Cong., 1st Sess., 1893—1894 (1864).

On the other side, proposed amendments expressly permitting much broader state and local taxation of national banks were introduced, debated, and rejected by the Congress. Among these was an amendment introduced in the House which would have made national banks subject, without exception, to all state and local general taxes on personal as well as real property:

'And the said associations or corporations shall severally be subject to State and municipal taxation upon their real and personal estate, the same as persons residing at their respective places of business are subject to such taxation by State laws.' Cong. Globe, 38th Cong., 1st Sess., 1392 (1864).

The result of this conflict was that the legislation, when finally passed, was a compromise which permitted state taxation of national banks in certain ways, but prohibited all other forms of state taxation. Senator Fessenden, Chairman of the Finance Committee, clearly defined the compromise that was being enacted:

'If the Senator reads this bill he will perceive that all the power of taxation upon the operations of the bank itself, all upon the circulation, all upon the deposits, all upon everything which can properly be made by a tax is reserved to the General Government; that the States cannot touch it in any possible form; that they are limited and controlled; the simple right is given them to say that the property which their own citizens have invested in it shall contribute to State taxation precisely as other property.' Cong. Globe, 38th Cong., 1st Sess., 1895 (1864).

It seems clear to us from the legislative history that 12 U.S.C. § 548 was intended to prescribe the only ways in which the States can tax national banks. And this is certainly not a novel interpretation of the section, as shown by previous decisions of this Court. As early as 1899 the Court declared:

'This section (R.S. § 5219, 12 U.S.C. § 548), then, of the Revised Statutes is the measure of the power of a state to tax national banks, their prop- erty or their franchises. By its unambiguous provisions the power is confined to a taxation of the shares of stock in the names of the shareholders and to an assessment of the real estate of the bank. Any state tax, therefore, which is in excess of, and not in conformity to, these requirements, is void.' Owensboro Nat. Bank v. City of Owensboro, 173 U.S. 664, 669, 19 S.Ct. 537, 539, 43 L.Ed. 850.

A more complete explanation of § 548 and its meaning appears in this Court's opinion in Bank of California National Association v. Richardson, 248 U.S. 476, 39 S.Ct. 165, 63 L.Ed. 372, where it was said:

'There is also no doubt from the section (R.S. § 5219, 12 U.S.C. § 548) that it was intended to comprehensively control the subject with which it dealt and thus to furnish the exclusive rule governing state taxation as to the federal agencies created as provided in the section. * * *

'Two provisions in apparent conflict were adopted. First, the absolute exclusion of power in the states to tax the banks, the national agencies created, so as to prevent all interference with their operations, the integrity of their assets, or the administrative governmental control over their affairs. Second, preservation of the taxing power of the several states so as to prevent any impairment thereof from arising from the existence of the national agencies created, to the end that the financial resources engaged in their development might not be withdrawn from the reach of state taxation * * *.

'The first aim was attained by the non-recognition of any power whatever in the states to tax the federal agencies, the banks, except as to real estate specially provided for, and, therefore, the exclusion of all such powers. The second was reached by a recognition of the fact that, considered from the point of view of ultimate and beneficial interest every available asset possessed or enjoyed by the banks would be owned by their stockholders and would be, therefore, reached by taxation of the stockholders as such. * * *' 248 U.S., at 483, 39 S.Ct. at 166.

Finally, so there can be no doubt, consider these words of the Court in Des Moines Bank v. Fairweather, 263 U.S. 103, 44 S.Ct. 23, 68 L.Ed. 191:

'This section (R.S. § 5219, 12 U.S.C. § 548) shows, and the decisions under it hold, that what Congress intended was that national banks and their property should be free from taxation under state authority, other than taxes on their real property and on shares held by them in other national banks; and that all shares in such banks should be taxable to their owners, the stockholders, much as other personal property is taxable * * *.' 263 U.S., at 107, 44 S.Ct. at 24.

Thus, at least since the Owensboro decision, supra, in 1899, it has been abundantly clear that 12 U.S.C. § 548 marks the outer limit within which States can tax national banks. Now this Court is asked to change what legislative history and prior decisions have established is the precise meaning of an Act of Congress. This we cannot do. For, as we pointed out above, the banking field has traditionally been an area of particular congressional concern marked by legislation responsive to new problems. This can be illustrated by the history of § 548 alon...

To continue reading

Request your trial
152 cases
  • Andover Sav. Bank v. Commissioner of Revenue
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court
    • August 25, 1982
    ...Agricultural Nat'l Bank v. State Tax Comm'n, 353 Mass. 172, 177-193, 229 N.E.2d 245 (1967), reversed on other grounds, 392 U.S. 339, 88 S.Ct. 2173, 20 L.Ed.2d 1138 (1968); United States v. New Mexico, 455 U.S. 720, 102 S.Ct. 1373, 71 L.Ed.2d 580 (1982). It is undisputed, however, that by vi......
  • United States v. State Tax Commission
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit
    • June 28, 1973
    ...enacted in 1966. The federal associations are federally created banks. Cf. First Agricultural National Bank of Berkshire County v. State Tax Commission, 392 U.S. 339, 340, 88 S.Ct. 2173, 20 L.Ed.2d 1138 (1968). Chartered and regulated by the Federal Home Loan Board under authority conferred......
  • California State Board of Equalization v. Sierra Summit, Inc
    • United States
    • U.S. Supreme Court
    • June 12, 1989
    ...Washington v. United States, 460 U.S. 536, 540, 103 S.Ct. 1344, 1347, 75 L.Ed.2d 264 (1983); First Agricultural Nat. Bank v. State Tax Comm'n, 392 U.S. 339, 88 S.Ct. 2173, 20 L.Ed.2d 1138 (1968); United States v. City of Detroit, 355 U.S. 466, 474, 78 S.Ct. 474, 478, 2 L.Ed.2d 424 (1958), w......
  • United States v. State Tax Commission of Mississippi 8212 350
    • United States
    • U.S. Supreme Court
    • June 4, 1973
    ...the 'economic' burden of the local tax, its legal incidence being solely on the distributor. First Agricultural National Bank v. State Tax Comm'n, 392 U.S. 339, 88 S.Ct. 2173, 20 L.Ed.2d 1138, is inapposite. In that case Congress had specifically provided four ways in which the States could......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT