Robbins v. Taxing District of Shelby Co Tennessee

Decision Date07 March 1887
Citation30 L.Ed. 694,120 U.S. 489,7 S.Ct. 592
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Luke E. Wright, for paintiff in error.

S. P. Walker, for defendant in error.


This case originated in the following manner: Sabine Robbins, the plaintiff in error, in February, 1884, was engaged at the city of Memphis, in the state of Tennessee, in soliciting the sale of goods for the firm of Rose, Robbins & Co., of Cincinnati, in the state of Ohio, dealers in paper and other articles of stationery, and exhibited samples for the purpose of effecting such sales,—an employment usually denominated as that of a 'drummer.' There was in force at that time a statute of Tennessee, relating to the subject of taxation in the taxing districts of the state, applicable, however, only to the taxing district of Shelby county, (formerly the city of Memphis,) by which it was enacted, among other things, that 'all drummers, and all persons not having a regular licensed house of business in the taxing district, offering for sale or selling goods, wares, or merchandise therein, by sample, shall be required to pay to the county trustee the sum of ten dollars ($10) per week, or twenty-five dollars per month, for such privilege; and no license shall be issued for a longer period than three months.' Act 1881, c. 96, § 16. The business of selling by sample, and nearly 60 other occupations, had been by law declared to be privileges, and were taxed as such; and it was made a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of not less than five, nor more than fifty, dollars, to exercise any of such occupations without having first paid the tax, or obtained a license required therefor. Under this law, Robbins, who had not paid the tax nor taken a license, was prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to pay a fine of $10, together with the state and county tax, and costs; and, on appeal to the supremec ourt of the state, the judgment was affirmed. This writ of error is brought to review the judgment of the supreme court, on the ground that the law imposing the tax was repugnant to that clause of the constitution of the United States which declares that congress shall have power to regulate commerce among the several states.

On the trial of the cause in the inferior court, a jury being waived, the following agreed statement of facts was submitted to the court, to-wit: 'Sabine Robbins is a citizen and resident of Cincinnati, Ohio, and on the ___ day of ___, 1884, was engaged in the business of drumming in the taxing district of Shelby county, Tennessee,—i. e., soliciting trade, by the use of samples, for the house or firm for which he worked as drummer; said firm being the firm of 'Rose, Robbins & Co.,' doing business in Cincinnati, and all the members of said firm being citizens and residents of Cincinnati, Ohio. While engaged in the act of drumming for said firm, and for the claimed offense of not having taken out the required license for doing said business, the defendant, Sabine Robbins, was arrested by one of the Memphis or taxing district police force and carried before the Hon. D. P. Hadden, president of the taxing district, and fined for the offense of drumming without a license. It is admitted the firm of 'Rose, Robbins & Co.' are engaged in the selling of paper, writing materials, and such articles as are used in the book-stores of the taxing district of Shelby county, and that it was a line of such articles for the sale of which the said defendant herein was drumming at the time of his arrest.' This was all the evidence, and thereupon the court rendered judgment against the defendant, to which he excepted, and a bill of exceptions was taken.

The principal question argued before the supreme court of Tennessee was as to the constitutionality of the act which imposed the tax on drummers; and the court decided that it was constitutional and valid. That is the question before us, and it is one of great importance to the people of the United States, both as respects their business interests and their constitutional rights. It is presented in a nutshell, and does not, at this day, require for its solution any great elaboration of argument or review of authorities. Certain principles have been already established by the decisions of this court, which will conduct us to a satisfactory decision. Among those principles are the following:

1. The constitution of the United States having given to congress the power to regulate commerce, not only with foreign nations, but among the several states, that power is necessarily exclusive whenever the subjects of it are national in their character, or admit only of one uniform system, or plan of regulation. This was decided in the case of Cooley v. Board of Wardens of the Port of Philadelphia, 12 How. 299, 319, and was virtually in volved in the case of Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat. 1, and has been confirmed in many subsequent cases; among others, in Brown v. Maryland, 12 Wheat. 419; Passenger Cases, 7 How. 283; Crandall v. Nevada, 6 Wall. 35, 42; Ward v. Maryland, 12 Wall. 418, 430; State Freight Tax Cases, 15 Wall. 232, 279; Henderson v. Mayor of New York, 92 U. S. 259, 272; Railroad Co. v. Husen, 95 U. s. 465, 469; Mobile v. Kimball, 102 U. S. 691, 697; Gloucester Ferry Co. v. Pennsylvania, 114 U. S. 196, 203, 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 826; Wabash R. Co. v. Illinois, 118 U. S. 557, 7 Sup. Ct. Rep. 4.

2. Another established doctrine of this court is that, where the power on congress to regulate is exclusive, the failure of congress to make express regulations indicates its will that the subject shall be left free from any restrictions or impositions; and any regulation of the subject by the states, except in matters of local concern only, as hereafter mentioned, is repugnant to such freedom. This was held byM r. Justice JOHNSON in Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat. 1, 222; by Mr. Justice GRIER in the Passenger Cases, 7 How. 283, 462; and has been affirmed in subsequent cases. State Freight Tax Cases, 15 Wall. 232, 279; Railroad Co. v. Husen, 95 U. S. 465, 469; Welton v. Missouri, 91 U. S. 275, 282; County of Mobile v. Kimball, 102 U. S. 691, 697; Brown v. Houston, 114 U. S. 622, 631, 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1091; Walling v. Michigan, 116 U. S. 446, 455, 6 Sup. Ct. Rep. 454; Pickard v. Pullman Palace Car Co., 117 U. S. 34, 6 Sup. Ct. Rep. 635; Wabash R. Co. v. Illinois, 118 U. S. 557, 7 Sup. Ct. Rep. 4.

3. It is also an established principle, as already indicated, that the only way in which commerce between the states can be legitimately affected by state laws is when, by virtue of its police power, and its jurisdiction over persons and property within its limits, a state provides for the security of the lives, limbs, health, and comfort of persons and the protection of property, or when it does those things which may otherwise incidentally affect commerce; such as the establishment and regulation of highways, canals, railroads, wharves, ferries, and other commercial facilities; the passage of inspection laws to secure the due quality and measure of products and commodities; the passage of laws to regulate or restrict the sale of articles deemed injurious to the health or morals of the community; the imposition of taxes upon persons residing within the state or belonging to its population, and upon avocations and employments pursued therein, not directly connected with foreign or interstate commerce, or with some other employment or business exercised under authority of the constitution and laws of the United States, and the imposition of taxes upon all property within the state, mingled with and forming part of the great mass of property therein. But, in making such internal regulations, a state cannot impose taxes upon persons passing through the state, or coming into it merely for a temporary purpose, especially if connected with interstate or foreign commerce; nor can it impose such taxes upon property imported into the state from abroad, or from another state, and not yet become part of the common mass of property therein; and no discrimination can be made by any such regulations adversely to the persons or property of other states; and no regulations can be made directly affecting interstate commerce. Any taxation or regulation of the latter character would be an unauthorized interference with the power give to congress over the subject. For authorities on this last head it is only necessary to refer to those already cited. In a word, it may be said that, in the matter of interstate commerce, the United States are but one country, and are and must be subject to one system of regulations, and not to a multitude of systems. The doctrine of the freedom of that commerce, except as regulated by congress, is so firmly established that it is unnecessary to enlarge further upon the subject.

In view of these fundamental principles, which are to govern our decision, we may approach the question submitted to us in the present case, and inquire whether it is competent for a state to levy a tax or impose any other restriction upon the citizens or inhabitants of other states for selling or seeking to sell their goods in such state before they are introduced therein. Do not such restrictions affect the very foundation of interstate trade? How is a manufacturer or a merchant of one state to sell his goods in another state, without, in some way, obtaining orders therefor? Must he be compelled to send them at a venture, without knowing whether there is any demand for them? This may, undoubtedly, be safely done with regard to some products for which there is always a market and a demand, or where the course of trade has established a general and unlimited demand. A raiser of farm produce in New Jersey or Connecticut, or a manufactue r of leather or woodenware, may, perhaps, safely take his goods to the city of New York, and be sure of finding a stable and reliable market for them. But there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ...

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