Singleton v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue 78

Decision Date30 October 1978
Docket NumberNo. 78-,78-
Citation439 U.S. 940,99 S.Ct. 335,58 L.Ed.2d 335
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

On petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied.

Mr. Justice BLACKMUN, with whom Mr. Justice MARSHALL and Mr. Justice POWELL join, dissenting.

The issue in this federal income tax case is whether a cash distribution that petitioner husband (hereafter petitioner) received in 1965 with respect to his shares in Capital Southwest Corporation (CSW) was taxable to him as a dividend, as the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held, or whether that distribution was a return of capital and therefore not taxable, as the Tax Court held. I regard the issue as of sufficient importance in the administration of the income tax laws to justify review here, and I dissent from the Court's failure to grant certiorari.

CSW was the parent of a group of affiliated corporations. Consolidated returns were filed for CSW and the group for the fiscal years ended March 31, 1964 and 1965. This was advantageous taxwise, for it enabled income of Capital Wire & Cable Corporation (CW), one of the subsidiaries, to be offset against losses sustained by CSW. CW's board formally recognized a saving in tax of about $863,000 through the filing of consolidated returns for the two fiscal years. That board then distributed $1 million in March 1965, not solely to CSW, its principal shareholder, but ratably to all its shareholders. As primary shareholder, CSW received $803,750 of that distribution.

The Internal Revenue Service subsequently determined that the consolidated returns for fiscal 1964 and 1965 did not accurately reflect the earnings of the group. Asserted deficiencies were settled in 1972 for approximately $900,000. Of this amount, about $755,000 was allocated to CW.

Petitioner takes the position that CW's allocable share of the 1965 tax must be accrued to that fiscal year; that CW's 1965 payment to CSW was thus not a dividend entering into the determination of CSW's earnings and profits at all, but was a constructive payment of CW's share of the tax bill; that this left CSW with no earnings and profits for 1965; and that, as a consequence, CSW's 1965 distribution to petitioner could only be a nontaxable return of capital and could not be a taxable dividend. The Tax Court, in a reviewed decision, with six judges dissenting, accepted this view. 64 T.C. 320 (1975). The Fifth Circuit reversed. 569 F.2d 863 (1978).

As is not infrequently the situation in tax cases, the parties initially wage a battle of maxims. Petitioner speaks of "substance and realities" and cites, among other cases, Helvering v. Lazarus & Co., 308 U.S. 252, 255, 60 S.Ct. 209, 84 L.Ed. 226 (1939), and Frank Lyon Co. v. United States, 435 U.S. 561, 573, 98 S.Ct. 1291, 55 L.Ed.2d 550 (1978). The Commissioner asserts that a taxpayer must accept the tax consequences of his structural choice and cites Commissioner of Internal Revenue v. National Alfalfa Dehydrating & Milling Co., 417 U.S. 134, 149, 94 S.Ct. 2129, 40 L.Ed.2d 717 (1974). In addition, however, it is clear that CW's distribution was definitely intended to compensate CSW for the tax saving effected by the beneficial use of CSW's loss in the consolidated return. On the other hand, that compensatory action was accomplished by a pro rata distribution not only to CSW but to minority shareholders as well.

For me, the answer to this tax question is by no means immediately apparent. Each side advances a forceful argument. The deep division among the judges of the Tax Court is indicative and significant. I cannot regard the issue as one that is too fact-specific or incapable of precedential effect. On the contrary, it features important aspects of tax accounting and tax law. CSW and CW, after all, were accrual-basis taxpayers. Normally, when a deficiency in tax of an accrual-basis taxpayer is ultimately determined, it is to be accrued as of the tax year of the deficiency and it affects earnings and profits accordingly. A consideration opposing this accepted proposition is the fact that the portion of CW's 1965 distribution paid to minority shareholders obviously qualified and apparently was reported as taxable dividends; it would be at least somewhat anomalous to have the portion paid to CSW constitute, in contrast, a return of capital.

I hope that the Court's decision to pass this case by is not due to a natural reluctance to take on another complicated tax case that is devoid of glamour and emotion and that would be remindful of the recent struggles, upon argument and reargument, in United States v. Foster Lumber Co., 429 U.S. 32, 97 S.Ct. 204, 50 L.Ed.2d 199 (1976), and Laing v. United States, 423 U.S. 161, 96 S.Ct. 473, 46 L.Ed.2d 416 (1976).*

Opinion of Mr. Justice STEVENS respecting the denial of the petition for writ of certiorari.

What is the significance of this Court's denial of certiorari? That question is asked again and again; it is a question that is likely to arise whenever a dissenting opinion argues that certiorari should have been granted. Almost 30 years ago Mr. Justice Frankfurter provided us with an answer to that question that should be read again and again.

"This Court now declines to review the decision of the Maryland Court of Appeals. The sole significance of such denial of a petition for writ of certiorari need not be elucidated to those versed in the Court's procedures. It simply means that fewer than four members of the Court deemed it desirable to review a decision of the lower court as a matter 'of sound judicial discretion.' Rule 38, paragraph 5. A variety of considerations underlie denials of the writ, and as to the same petition different reasons may lead different Justices to the same result. This is especially true of petitions for review on writ of certiorari to a State court. Narrowly technical reasons may lead to denials. Review may be sought too late; the judgment of the lower court may not be final; it may not be the judgment of a State court of last resort; the decision may be supportable as a matter of State law, not subject to review by this Court, even though the State court also passed on issues of federal law. A decision may satisfy all these technical requirements and yet may commend itself for review to fewer than four members of the Court. Pertinent considerations of judicial policy here come into play. A case may raise an important question but the record may be cloudy. It may be desirable to have different aspects of an issue further illumined by the lower courts. Wise adjudication has its own time for ripening.


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33 cases
  • People v. I.F. (In re I.F.)
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
    • February 22, 2018
    ...from the denial of certiorari" are "totally unnecessary" and "examples of the purest form of dicta." ( Singleton v. Commissioner (1978) 439 U.S. 940, 944-945, 99 S.Ct. 335, 58 L.Ed.2d 335 (Stevens, J., respecting the denial of certiorari).) Furthermore, in Little , though Justice Marshall w......
  • People v. Douglas
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
    • May 3, 2018
    ...As Justice Stevens emphasized in an opinion respecting the denial of the petition for writ of certiorari in Singleton v. C.I.R. (1978) 439 U.S. 940, 99 S.Ct. 335, 58 L.Ed.2d 335, all opinions dissenting from the denial of certiorari are "totally unnecessary" and are "examples of the purest ......
  • Causeway Medical Suite v. Ieyoub
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit
    • April 14, 1997
    ...the denial of certiorari" are "totally unnecessary" and "examples of the purest form of dicta." Singleton v. Commissioner, 439 U.S. 940, 944-45, 99 S.Ct. 335, 338, 58 L.Ed.2d 335 (1978) (Stevens, J., respecting the denial of certiorari). Accordingly, for a panel of this court to overrule a ......
  • State v. McKoy
    • United States
    • North Carolina Supreme Court
    • September 7, 1988
    ...94 L.Ed. 562, 566 (1950) (Frankfurter, J., opinion re: denial of certiorari); see also Singleton v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 439 U.S. 940, 944, 99 S.Ct. 335, 338, 58 L.Ed.2d 335, 336 (1978) (Stevens, J., opinion re: denial of certiorari). We do not suggest that the denial of certio......
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1 books & journal articles
  • Measuring meta-doctrine: an empirical assessment of judicial minimalism in the Supreme Court.
    • United States
    • Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy Vol. 32 No. 3, June 2009
    • June 22, 2009 reasonlessness, as in a denial of certiorari...."). (60.) SUNSTEIN, ONE CASE AT A TIME, supra note 1, at 11. (61.) Singleton v. Comm'r, 439 U.S. 940, 944-45 (1978) (Stevens, J., respecting denial of (62.) See Sunstein, Foreword, supra note 1, at 15 (explaining that minimalists "avoid dic......

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