TELEGRAPH COMPANY V. TEXAS, 105 U. S. 460 (1881)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Telegraph Company v. Texas, 105 U.S. 460 (1881)

Telegraph Company v. Texas

105 U.S. 460


1. In respect to its foreign and interstate business, a telegraph company is, as an instrument of commerce, subject to the regulating power of Congress, and, if it accepts the provisions of Title 66 of the Revised Statutes, it becomes an agent of the United States so far as the business of the government is concerned.

2. Where it has accepted those provisions, state laws, so far as they impose upon it a specific tax on each message which it transmits beyond the state, or which an officer of the United States sends over its lines on public business, are unconstitutional.

The Western Union Telegraph Company is a New York corporation engaged in the business of transmitting telegrams at fixed rates of compensation. Its lines extend into and through most of the states and territories of the United States, and to Washington, in the District of Columbia. It has availed itself of the privileges and subjected itself to the obligations of Title 65 of the Revised Statutes relating to telegraph companies, and its lines connect with those owned and established by the government of the United States for public purposes. It has one hundred and twenty-five offices in the State of Texas, and is in close communication with other telegraph companies doing business in this country and abroad.

By sec. 1 of art. 8 of the Constitution of Texas, the legislature is authorized to "impose occupation taxes, both upon natural persons and upon corporations, other than municipal, doing business in the state," and by art. 4655 of the Revised Statutes, enacted under that provision, every chartered telegraph company doing business in the state is required to pay a tax of one cent for every full-rate message sent, and one-half cent for every message less than full rate. This tax is to be paid quarterly to the comptroller of the state on sworn statements made by an officer of the company. In addition to this, taxes must be paid on the real and personal property of the company in the state.

Between Oct. 1, 1879, and July 1, 1880, the company sent over its lines from its offices in Texas 169,076 full rate and

Page 105 U. S. 461

100,408 less than full rate messages. A large portion of them were sent to places outside of the state, and by the officers of the government of the United States on public business. The company neglected to pay the tax imposed, and a suit was brought in one of the courts of the state for its recovery. In defense it was insisted that the law imposing the tax was in conflict with the Constitution and laws of the United States, and therefore void. The supreme court of the state, on appeal, sustained the law and directed a judgment against the company for the full amount claimed, allowing no deductions for messages sent out of the state or by government officers on government business. To reverse that judgment this writ of error was sued out.

The following is an abstract of their argument:

The act of Congress "to aid in the construction of telegraph lines" confers the right to construct them over the public domain and along the military or post roads of the United States, and for this purpose authorizes the companies to use stone, lumber, and other materials found on the public land. It then provides that as to the companies acting under the provisions of the act, the messages sent by the government "shall have priority over all other business, at such rates as the Postmaster General shall annually fix," the government reserving the right to purchase their lines.

This company, by accepting the act, was therefore bound to give the messages of the government priority over all other business at such rates as such be determined by the Postmaster General, but it incurred no other obligation. The act contains no provision inconsistent with the exercise of the taxing power of the states, and if Texas has the right to impose the tax in question on a company that had not accepted the act, this company cannot by accepting it elude that power.

The use of the line by the government for the transmission of messages does not constitute the company such an agency as to exempt it from state taxation. Osborn v. Bank of the

Page 105 U. S. 462

United States, 9 Wheat. 738; Thomson v. Pacific Railroad, 9 Wall. 579; Railroad Company v. Peniston, 18 Wall. 5.

Is the act under consideration void as being in conflict with the power vested in Congress to regulate commerce among the states?

A state, while it cannot regulate either foreign or interstate commerce, may do many things which more or less affect it. It may tax a vessel used in commerce, and the stages employed in the transportation of the mail. But this does not regulate commerce or the conveyance of the mail. And yet in both instances the tax on the property in some degree affects its use. This tax may enhance the cost of messages, many of which are transmitted beyond the state, but the statute imposing it is not an attempted regulation of commerce.

If the tax had been a specific sum of carrying on the business of telegraphy, or on an assessment of the property of the company, or upon its gross receipts, no argument in keeping with the decisions of this Court could successfully assail its validity.

We then have a question touching the relation of the states to the general government involving the vital power of taxation reduced to an inquiry into the mere phraseology of the act levying the tax.

Let it be admitted that the tax is on the message and not on the company. Are telegraph messages to be regarded as articles of commerce passing through the state? Many of them doubtless relate to commercial transactions, as an order to buy or an order to sell; but such an order is not an article of commerce, nor is it property in the sense we are now considering it. The tax is not, however, laid on the message, but on the company for the number of messages sent. It is, by the very terms of the act, payable quarterly, on the statement of the company, so that it was collected long after they were sent. It is, in effect, a tax upon the company's quarterly business.

In sustaining the tax in State Tax on Railway Gross Receipts, 15 Wall. 284, the Court said:

"The tax is not levied until the expiration of each half-year, and until the money received for freights and other sources of income has actually

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come into the company's hands. Then it has lost its distinctive character as freight by having become incorporated into the general mass of the company's property."

If the tax in this case had been confined to messages between points within the state, no argument could be made to invalidate the act. This being so, as the act makes no discrimination, its legality cannot be impeached on the ground that a portion of the messages were sent through and beyond the limits of the state.

Osborne v. Mobile, 16 Wall. 479, is decisive of this case. It was tried on an agreed statement of facts, from which it appears that the express company was engaged in a business extending beyond the limits of the state in carrying merchandise of every kind, including articles of commerce, between different states, as well as goods and merchandise from foreign countries, and articles imported in the original packages; that the company was at times employed by the officials of the United States in transporting the funds of the government; that the company, which was incorporated by the State of Georgia, was subject to and had paid city and county taxes on its property, and the tax levied by the United States.

The tax complained of as unconstitutional was levied by virtue of a city ordinance, which provided that

"Every express company, or railroad company who shall do business in the City of Mobile and whose business extends beyond the limits of the state shall pay an annual license of $500, if within the limits of the state $100, and if within the limits of the city $50."

The act, it was maintained, was void because of the nature of the business on which the tax was imposed. The Chief Justice delivered the unanimous opinion of the Court sustaining a license tax for the privilege of doing an express business, the company being engaged in interstate commerce, notwithstanding the record showed that the company was taxed upon its property. That case was decided at the term when Case of the State Freight Tax and State Tax on Railway Gross Receipts were disposed of. The point of decision in each is referred to, and the decision thus concludes:

"The license tax was upon a business carried on within the City of Mobile. The business licensed included transportation

Page 105 U. S. 464

beyond the limits of the state, or rather the making of contracts within the state for such transportation beyond it. It was in reference to this feature of the business that the tax was in part imposed, but it was no more a tax upon interstate commerce than a general tax on drayage would be because the licensed drayman might sometimes be employed in hauling goods to vessels to be transported beyond the limits of the state."

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