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U.S. Supreme Court

Massachusetts v. United States, 435 U.S. 444 (1978)

Massachusetts v. United States

No. 76-1500

Argued December 6, 1977

Decided March 9, 1978

435 U.S. 444


As part of a comprehensive program to recoup the costs of federal aviation programs from those who use the national airsystem, Congress enacted the Airport and Airway Revenue Act of 1970, which imposes an annual "flat fee" registration tax on all civil aircraft, including those owned by the States and by the Federal Government, that fly in the navigable airspace of the United States. The Act also imposes a 7 cent per gallon tax on aircraft fuel, which, together with a 5 cent per pound aircraft tire and 10 cent per pound tube tax and the registration tax, was intended to reflect the cost of benefits from the programs to noncommercial general aircraft, but States were exempted from the fuel, tire, and tube taxes. After the registration tax was collected under protest from it with respect to a helicopter it used exclusively for police functions, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts instituted this refund action, contending that the United States may not constitutionally impose a tax that directly affects the essential and traditional state function of operating a police force. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground, inter alia, that the registration tax was a user fee which did not implicate the constitutional doctrine of implied immunity of state government from federal taxation. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The registration tax does not violate the implied immunity of a state government from federal taxation. Pp 435 U. S. 453-470

(a) A State enjoys no constitutional immunity from a nondiscriminatory federal revenue measure which operates only to ensure that each member of a class of special beneficiaries of a federal program pays a reasonable approximation of its fair share of the cost of the program to the Federal Government. Pp. 435 U. S. 454-463.

(b) Even if it were feasible for the Federal Government to recover all costs of a program through charges for measurable amounts of use of its facilities, rather than by imposing a flat fee, so long as the federal taxes imposed do not discriminate against state functions, are based on a fair approximation of the State's use of the facilities, and are structured to produce revenues that will not exceed the total cost to the Federal Government of the benefits supplied, there can be no substantial basis for a claim that the Federal Government may be using its

Page 435 U. S. 445

taxing powers to control, unduly interfere with, or destroy a State's ability to perform essential services. Pp. 435 U. S. 463-467.

(c) Here, the registration tax (1) is nondiscriminatory, since it applies not only to private users of the airways, but also to civil aircraft operated by the United States; (2) is, together with the 7 cent per gallon fuel tax and the 5 cent per pound tire and 1 cent per pound tube tax, a fair approximation of the cost of the benefits civil aircraft receive from the federal programs, since, even though the taxes do not give weight to every factor affecting appropriate compensation for airport and airway use, the fuel tax and tire and tube tax are geared directly to use, whereas the registration tax is designed to give weight to factors affecting the level of use of the navigational facilities; and (3) is not excessive in relation to the cost of the Government benefits supplied, since not only have the user fees proved to be insufficient to cover the annual civil aviation outlays, but the States, being exempt from the fuel tax, pay far less than private noncommercial users of the airways. Pp. 435 U. S. 467-470.

548 F.2d 33, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, and in Parts I, II-C, and III of which STEWART and POWELL, JJ., joined. STEWART and POWELL, JJ., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 435 U. S. 470. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J.,joined, post, p. 435 U. S. 471. BLACKMUN, J., took no part in the decision or consideration of the case.

Page 435 U. S. 446

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