Stratton Independence v. Howbert

Citation34 S.Ct. 136,231 U.S. 399,58 L.Ed. 285
Decision Date01 December 1913
Docket NumberNo. 457,457
PartiesSTRATTON'S INDEPENDENCE, Limited, v. F. W. HOWBERT, Collector of Internal Revenue in and for the District of Colorado
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Messrs. William V. Hodges, A. A. Hoehling, Jr., and John R. Van Derlip for Stratton's Independence.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 400-404 intentionally omitted] Assistant Attorney General Graham for Howbert, Collector.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 404-406 intentionally omitted] Messrs. Charles S. Thomas, W. H. Bryant, George L. Nye, William P. Malburn, William Story, William Story, Jr., and William D. Guthrie as amici curiae.

Mr. Justice Pitney delivered the opinion of the court:

This action was brought in the district court of the United States by Stratton's Independence, Limited, a British corporation carrying on mining operations in the state of Colorado upon mining lands owned by itself, to recover certain moneys paid under protest for taxes assessed and levied for the years 1909 and 1910 under the provisions of the corporation tax act, being § 38 of the act of August 5, 1909 (36 Stat. at L. 11, 112, chap. 6, U. S. Comp. Stat. Supp. 1911, pp. 741, 946). The case was tried upon an agreed statement of facts, from which it appears, as to the year 1909, that the company extracted from its lands during the year certain ores bearing gold and other precious metals, which were sold by it for sums largely in excess of the cost of mining, extracting, and marketing the same; that the gross sales amounted to $284,682.85, the cost of extracting, mining, and marketing amounted to $190,939.42, and 'the value of said ores so extracted in the year 1909, when in place in said mine and before extraction thereof, was $93,743.43.' With respect to the operations of the company for the year 1910, the agreed facts were practically the same, except as to dates and amounts. It does not appear that the so-called 'value of the ore in place,' or any other sum, was actually charged off upon the books of the company as depreciation. Upon this state of facts each party moved the court for a directed verdict, at the same time presenting for consideration certain questions of law, and among them the following:

'1. Is the value of the ore in place that was extracted from the mining property of the plaintiff during the years in question properly allowable as depreciation in estimating the net income of the plaintiff subject to taxation under the act of Congress of August 5, 1909 (36 Stat. at L. chap. 6, p. 11, U. S. Comp. Stat. Supp. 1911, p. 741)?

'2. Is the right to such credit affected by the fact that the plaintiff does not carry such items on its books in a depreciation account?'

The court directed a verdict in favor of the plaintiff with respect to certain amounts that were undisputed and concerning which no question is now raised; but directed a verdict in favor of the defendant with respect to so much of the taxes paid as represented the value in place of the ore that was extracted during the years in question, overruling the contention that such value was properly allowable as depreciation in estimating the net income of the plaintiff. To this ruling proper exceptions were taken. The resulting judgment having been removed by writ of error to the circuit court of appeals, that court certifies that the following questions of law are presented to it, the decision of which is indispensable to a determination of the cause, and upon which it therefore desires the instruction of this court:

'I. Does § 38 of the act of Congress entitled, 'An Act to Provide Revenue, Equalize Duties, and Encourage the Industries of the United States, and for Other Purposes,' approved August 5, 1909 (36 Stat. at L. p. 11, chap. 6, U. S. Comp. Stat. Supp. 1911, p. 741), apply to mining corporations?

'II. Are the proceeds of ores mined by a corporation from its own premises income within the meaning of the aforementioned act of Congress?

'III. If the proceeds from ore sales are to be treated as income, is such a corporation entitled to deduct the value of such ore in place and before it is mined as depreciation within the meaning of § 38 of said act of Congress?'

The provisions of § 38 are set forth in the margin.1

The principal grounds upon which it is contended that the questions ought to receive answers favorable to the company are expressed in various forms; viz., that mining corporations are sui generis, because the natural enjoyment of mining lands necessarily results in the waste of the estate; that the true value thereof is impossible of accurate determination, and hence mining corporations are not included in general classifications of corporations as such classifications are employed in other legislation; that the provisions of § 38 do not fit the conditions of a mining corporation; that such corporations are not in truth engaged in 'carrying on business' within the meaning of the act; that the application of the act to them results in a tax upon the capital, while as applied to other corporations it does not result in such a tax, the result being an inequality of operation that is inherently unjust; that the proceeds of mining operations do not represent values created by or incident to the business activities of such a corporation, and therefore cannot be a bona fide measure of a tax leveled at such corporate business activities; that the proceeds of mining operations result from a conversion of the capital represented by real estate into capital represented by cash, and are in no true sense income; and that to measure the tax by the excess of receipts for one marketed over the cost of mining, extracting, and marketing the same, is equivalent to a direct tax upon the property, and hence unconstitutional. Next, assuming the proceeds of ore are to be treated as income within the meaning of the act, it is yet insisted that such proceeds result solely from the depletion of capital, and are pari passu; and hence that a mining the provisions of the act.

We do not think it necessary to follow the argument through all its refinements. The pith of it is that mining corporations engaged solely in mining upon their own premises have but one kind of assets, and that in the ordinary use of them the enjoyment of the assets and the wasting thereof are in direct proportion, and proceed pari passu; and hence that a mining corporation is not engaged in business, properly speaking, but is merely occupied in converting its capital assets from one form into another, and that a tax upon the doing of such a business, where the tax is measured by the value of the property owned by the corporation, would be in excess of the constitutional limitations that existed at the time of the passage of the act of 1909, as laid down in Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & T. Co. 157 U. S. 429, 39 L. ed. 759, 15 Sup. Ct. Rep. 673, s. c., 158 U. S. 601, 39 L. ed. 1108, 15 Sup. Ct. Rep. 912.

The peculiar character of mining property is sufficiently obvious. Prior to development it may present to the naked eye a mere tract of land with barren surface, and of no practical value except for what may be found beneath. Then follow excavation, discovery, development, extraction of ores, resulting eventually, if the process be thorough, in the complete exhaustion of the mineral contents so far as they are worth removing. Theoretically, and according to the argument, the entire value of the mine, as ultimately developed, existed from the beginning. Practically, however, and from the commercial standpoint, the value—that is, the exchangeable or market value—depends upon different considerations. Beginning from little, when the existence, character, and extent of the ore deposits are problematical, it may increase steadily or rapidly so long as discovery and development outrun depletion, and the wiping out of the value by the practical exhaustion of the mine may be deferred for a long term of years. While not ignoring the importance of such considerations, we do not think they afford the sole test for determining the legislative intent.

As has been repeatedly remarked, the corporation tax act of 1909 was not intended to be and is not, in any proper sense, an income tax law. This court had decided in the Pollock Case that the income tax law of 1894 amounted in effect to a direct tax upon property, and was invalid because not apportioned according to populations, as prescribed by the Constitution. The act of 1909 avoided this difficulty by imposing not an income tax, but an excise tax upon the conduct of business in a corporate capacity, measuring, however, the amount of tax by the income of the corporation, with certain qualifications prescribed by the act itself. Flint v. Stone Tracy Co. 220 U. S. 107, 55 L. ed. 389, 31 Sup. Ct. Rep. 342, Ann. Cas. 1912 B, 1312; McCoach v. Minehill & S. H. R. Co. 228 U. S. 295, 57 L. ed. 842, 33 Sup. Ct. Rep. 419; United States v. Whitridge (decided at this term, 231 U. S. 144, 58 L. ed. ——, 34 Sup. Ct. Rep. 24.

For this and other obvious reasons we are little aided by a discussion of theoretical distinctions between capital and income. Such refinements can hardly be deemed to have entered into the legislative purpose. Of course, if it were demonstrable that to read the act according to its letter would render it unconstitutional, or glaringly unequal, or palpably unjust, a reasonable ground would exist for construing it according to its spirit rather than its letter. But in our opinion the act is not fairly open to this criticism. It is not correct, from either the theoretical or the practical standpoint, to say that a mining corporation is not engaged in business, but is merely occupied in converting its capital assets from one form into another. The sale outright of a mining property might be fairly described as a mere conversion of the capital from land into money. But when a company is digging pits, sinking shafts, tunneling,...

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