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BLODGETT v. HOLDEN, 275 U.S. 142 (1928)

U.S. Supreme Court

BLODGETT v. HOLDEN, 275 U.S. 142 (1928)

275 U.S. 142 276 U.S. 594  

John W. BLODGETT
v.
Charles HOLDEN, Collector of Internal Revenue.
No. 154.

Argued Oct. 4, 1927.
Decided Nov. 21, 1927.

As Modified Feb. 20, 1928

Mr. Mark Norris, of Grand Rapids, Mich., for plaintiff. [275 U.S. 142, 143]   Mr. Alfred A. Wheat, of Washington, D. C., for defendant.

PER CURIAM.

An equal division of opinion among the eight Justices who heard and considered this matter renders it impossible categorically to answer certified question No. 2. The other two questions we think are not essential. The statements of views by the Justices are enough to show that the tax exacted of Blodgett cannot be sustained under sections 319-324 of the Revenue Act of 1924 (26 USCA 1131-1136 (Comp. St. 6336 4/5 s-6336 4/5 x)), and they will enable the Circuit Court of Appeals readily to reach a proper decision. The cause will be remanded there for appropriate action. [275 U.S. 142, 144]  

Mr. Justice McREYNOLDS.

The Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has certified three questions and asked instructions in respect of them. Title 28, section 346, U. S. C. It is only necessary to answer the one which follows:

The Revenue Act approved June 2, 1924, provides:

Section 321 allows certain deductions: $50,000; donations for charitable purposes, etc.

Section 322 is unimportant here.

Act of February 26, 1926, 44 Stat. 86, c. 27 (26 USCA 1131):

During the calendar year 1924, and prior to June 2, plaintiff, Blodgett, a resident of the United States, transferred by gifts inter vivos, and not in contemplation of death, property valued at more than $ 850,000; after June 2 he made other gifts valued at $6,500. The collector exacted of him the tax prescribed by the act of 1924, as amended, on such transfers, and this suit seeks recovery of the sum so paid. The claim is that the Taxing Act, if applicable in the circumstances stated, conflicts with the Fifth Amendment.

At the argument here counsel for Blodgett affirmed that all the transfers prior to June 2 were really made during the month of January, and the accuracy of this statement was not questioned. Under the circumstances, we will treat this affirmation as if it were part of the recital of facts by the court below.

The brief in behalf of the collector sets out the legislative history of the gift tax provisions in the Revenue Act [275 U.S. 142, 147]   of 1924 and shows that they were not presented for the consideration of Congress prior to February 25 of that year. We must therefore determine whether Congress had power to impose a charge upon the donor because of gifts fully consummated before such provisions came before it. 274 U.S. 531 , 47 S. Ct. 710.

In Nichols v. Coolidge (May 31, 1926) this Court pointed out that a statute purporting to lay a tax may be so arbitrary and capricious that its enforcement would amount to deprivation of property without due process of law within the inhibition of the Fifth Amendment. As to the gifts which Blodgett made during January, 1924, we think the challenged enactment is arbitrary and for that reason invalid. It seems wholly unreasonable that one who, in entire good faith and without the slightest premonition of such consequence, made absolute disposition of his property by gifts should thereafter be required to pay a charge for so doing.

Determination of the cause does not require us to consider other objections to the statute which have been advanced. And it is unnecessary to express on opinion concerning the validity of the statute as to transfers subsequent to June 2. Here all such gifts were within the exemption granted.

So far as the Revenue Act of 1924 undertakes to impose a tax because of the gifts made during January, 1924, it is arbitrary and invalid under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The CHIEF JUSTICE, Mr. Justice VAN DEVANTER, and Mr. Justice BUTLER concur in this opinion.

Mr. Justice HOLMES.

Although research has shown and practice has established the futility of the charge that it was a usurpation when this Court undertook to declare an Act of Congress unconstitutional, I suppose that we all agree that to do [275 U.S. 142, 148]   so is the gravest and most delicate duty that this Court is called on to perform. Upon this among other considerations the rule is settled that as between two possible interpretations of a statute, by one of which it would be unconstitutional and by the other valid, our plain duty is to adopt that which will save the Act. Even to avoid a serious doubt the rule is the same. United States v. Delaware & Hudson Co., 213 U.S. 366, 407 , 408 S., 29 S. Ct. 527; United States v. Standard Brewery, 251 U.S. 210, 220 , 40 S. Ct. 139; Texas v. Eastern Texas R. R. Co., 258 U.S. 204, 217 , 42 S. Ct. 281; Bratton v. Chandler. 260 U.S. 110, 114 , 43 S. Ct. 43; Panama R. R. Co. v. Johnson, 264 U.S. 375, 390 , 44 S. Ct. 391. Words have been strained more than they need to be strained here in order to avoid that doubt. United States v. Jin Fuey Moy, 241 U.S. 394, 401 , 402 S., 36 S. Ct. 658. In a different sphere but embodying the same general attitude as to construction, see United States v. Goelet, 232 U.S. 293, 297 , 34 S. Ct. 431.

By 319 of the Revenue Act of 1924 (June 2, 1924, c. 234; 43 Stat. 253, 313) a tax is laid on gifts 'For the calendar year 1924 and each calendar year thereafter.' In the Code the words are 'during any calendar year,' Title 26, 1131. The latter phrase brings out what I should think was obvious without its aid, that the purpose is a general one to indicate the periods to be regarded, as distinguished from fiscal years, not necessarily to run counter to the usual understanding that statutes direct themselves to future not to past transactions. Reynolds v. McArthur, 2 Pet. 417, 434 ,7 L. Ed. 470; Shwab v. Doyle, 258 U.S. 529, 534 , 42 S. Ct. 391, 26 A. L. R. 1454; Lewellyn v. Frick, 268 U.S. 238, 251 , 252 S., 45 S. Ct. 487. If when the statute was passed it had been well recognized that Congress had no power to tax past gifts I think that we should have no trouble in reading the Act as meant to operate only from its date and only to tax gifts thereafter made. If I am right, we should read it in that way now. By 324(a) of the Revenue Act of 1926 ( Act February 26, 1926, c. 27, 44 Stat. 9, 86), 319 of the Act of 1924 is amended [275 U.S. 142, 149]   and the rates of taxation are reduced, and then by (b) it is provided that 'subdivision (a) of this section shall take effect as of June 2, 1924,' the date when the earlier act was passed. A reasonable interpretation is that the reduction and the tax operate alike on gifts after that date. Taking both statutes into account, and the principles of construction to which I have referred, I think it tolerably plain that the Act should be read as referring only to transactions taking place after it was passed, when to disregard the rule 'would be to impose an unexpected liability that if known might have induced those concerned to avoid it and to use their money in other ways.' Lewellyn v. Frick, 268 U.S. 238, 251 , 252 S., 45 S. Ct. 487, 488 (69 L. Ed. 934).

On the general question whether there is power to tax gifts I express no opinion now. I agree with the result that the plaintiff is entitled to recover the taxes paid in respect of gifts made before the statute went into effect.

Mr. Justice BRANDEIS, Mr. Justice SANFORD and Mr. Justice STONE concur in this opinion.

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