STEWARD MACH. CO. V. COLLECTOR, 301 U. S. 548 (1937)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Steward Mach. Co. v. Collector, 301 U.S. 548 (1937)

Steward Machine Co. v. Collector of Internal Revenue

No. 837

Argued April 8, 9, 1937

Decided May 24, 1937

301 U.S. 548


1. The tax imposed by Title IX of the Social Security Act of August 14, 1935, upon the employer of labor, described as "an excise tax with respect to having individuals in his employ," and which is measured by prescribed percentages of the total wages payable by the employer during the calendar year, is either an "excise," a "duty," or an "impost," within the intent of Art. I, Sec. 8, of the Constitution, and complies with the requirement of uniformity throughout the United States. Pp. 301 U. S. 578, 301 U. S. 583.

2. The enjoyment of common rights, such as the right to employ labor, may constitutionally be taxed. P. 301 U. S. 578.

Such taxation was practiced in England and among the Colonies before the adoption of the Constitution. P. 301 U. S. 579.

3. The fact that the Social Security Act, Title IX, supra, exempts from the tax employers of less than eight, and does not apply in respect of agricultural labor, domestic service in private homes, and some other classes of employment does not render it obnoxious to the Fifth Amendment. P. 301 U. S. 584.

A classification supported by considerations of public policy and practical convenience, which would be valid under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment if adopted by a State, is lawful, a fortiori, in the legislation of Congress, since the Fifth Amendment contains no equal protection clause.

4. The proceeds of the tax imposed on employers by Title IX of the Social Security Act, supra, go into the Treasury of the United States without earmark, like internal revenue collections generally. The taxpayer is entitled to credit against the federal tax (up to 90% thereof) what he has contributed during the tax year under a state unemployment law, provided that the state law shall have been certified by the Federal Social Security Board to the Secretary of the Treasury as satisfying certain conditions designed to assure that the state law is genuinely an unemployment compensation law and that contributions will

Page 301 U. S. 549

be used solely in the payment of compensation and be protected against loss after the payment to the State. To these ends, Title IX provides, among other things, that, to be approved by the federal Commission, the state law shall direct that all money received in the state unemployment fund shall immediately upon such receipt be paid over to the Secretary of the Treasury to the credit of an "Unemployment Trust Fund," and that all money withdrawn from the Unemployment Trust Fund by the state agency shall be used solely in the payment of compensation, exclusive of expenses of administration. The Secretary is empowered to invest in Government securities any portion of this fund which, in his judgment, is not required to meet current withdrawals, and out of it he is directed to pay to any competent state agency such sums as it may duly requisition from the amount standing to its credit. The taxpayer's credit against the federal tax depends on compliance with these statutory conditions; the State, however, is under no contractual obligation to comply, but, at its pleasure, may repeal its unemployment law, and withdraw its deposit from the federal Treasury.


(1) Assuming that the federal tax cannot be treated as a revenue provision standing apart, but must be tested in combination with the 90% credit provision, the tax is not void as involving an unconstitutional attempt to coerce the States to adopt unemployment compensation legislation approved by the Federal Government. P. 301 U. S. 585.

(2) The problem of unemployment is national as well as local, and in promotion of the general welfare moneys of the Nation may be used to relieve the unemployed and their dependents in economic depressions and to guard against such disasters. P. 301 U. S. 586.

(3) Title IX may be sustained as a cooperative plan whereby States may be set free to provide unemployment compensation without subjecting themselves to economic disadvantages resulting from the absence of such provision in other States, and whereby, through the assumption of such burdens by the States generally, the financial burden of tho Nation due to unemployment may be correspondingly decreased. P. 301 U. S. 587.

Duplicated taxes, or burdens that approach them, are hardships that government, state or national, may properly avoid. P. 301 U. S. 589.

(4) Every rebate from a tax, when conditioned upon conduct, is in some measure a temptation; but motive or temptation is not equivalent to coercion. P. 301 U. S. 589.

Page 301 U. S. 550

(5) If it be true to say that a power akin to undue influence may be exerted by the national Government on the States, the location of the point at which pressure turns into compulsion, and ceases to be inducement, would be a question of degree -- at times, perhaps, of fact. The point had not been reached when Alabama, by passing her unemployment compensation law, evinced her choice to have relief administered under laws of her own making, by agents of her own selection, instead of under federal laws, administered by federal officers. P. 301 U. S. 589.

It is one thing to impose a federal tax dependent upon the conduct of the taxpayers, or of the State in which they live, where the conduct to be stimulated or discouraged is unrelated to the fiscal need subserved by the tax in its normal operation, or to any other end legitimately national. It is quite another thing to say that a tax will be abated upon the doing of an act that will satisfy the fiscal need, the tax and the alternative being approximate equivalents. In such circumstances, if in no others, inducement or persuasion does not go beyond the bounds of power. P. 301 U. S. 591.

5. No surrender of powers essential to the quasi-sovereign existence of States is required by § 903 of Title IX of the Social Security Act, which defines the minimum criteria to which a state compensation system is required to conform if it is to be accepted by the Social Security Board as the basis for credits against the taxes laid on employers by that Title; nor by § 904, which deals with the deposit, investment and withdrawal of the moneys credited. P. 301 U. S. 593.

6. Semble that the States may constitutionally make with Congress such agreements as do not impair the essence of their statehood. P. 301 U. S. 597.

7. Title III of the Social Security Act, which appropriates no money but authorizes the making of future appropriations for the purpose of assisting the States in the administration of their unemployment compensation laws, is severable from Title IX, and its validity is not in issue. P. 598.

89 F.2d 207, affirmed.

This was a review, on certiorari, 300 U.S. 652, of a judgment of the court below affirming the dismissal of the complaint in an action for the recovery of money paid by the plaintiff as a tax under Title IX of the Social Security Act.

Page 301 U. S. 573

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