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United States Supreme Court

105 U.S. 460

Telegraph Company  v.  Texas


In Pensacola Telegraph Co. v. Western Union Telegraph Co. (96 U.S. 1), this court held that the telegraph was an instrument of commerce, and that telegraph companies were subject to the regulating power of Congress in respect to their foreign and inter-state business. A telegraph company occupies the same relation to commerce as a carrier of messages, that a railroad company does as a carrier of goods. Both companies are instruments of commerce, and their business is commerce itself. They do their transportation in different ways, and their liabilities are in some respects different, but they are both indispensable to those engaged to any considerable extent in commercial pursuits.

Congress, to facilitate the erection of telegraph lines, has by statute authorized the use of the public domain and the military and post roads, and the crossing of the navigable streams and waters of the United States for that purpose. As a return for this privilege those who avail themselves of it are bound to give the United States precedence in the use of their lines for public business at rates to be fixed by the Postmaster-General. Thus, as to government business, companies of this class become government agencies.

The Western Union Telegraph Company having accepted the restrictions and obligations of this provision by Congress, occupies in Texas the position of an instrument of foreign and inter-state commerce, and of a government agent for the transmission of messages on public business. Its property in the State is subject to taxation the same as other property, and it may undoubtedly be taxed in a proper way on account of its occupation and its business. The precise question now presented it whether the power to tax its occupation can be exercised by placing a specific tax on each message sent out of the State, or sent by public officers on the business of the United States.

In Case of the State Freight Tax (15 Wall. 232) this court ecided that a law of Pennsylvania requiring transportation companies doing business in that State to pay a fixed sum as a tax 'on each two thousand pounds of freight carried,' without regard to the distance moved, or charge made, was unconstitutional, so far as it related to goods taken through the State, or from points without the State to points within, or from points within to points without, because to that extent it was a regulation of foreign and inter-state commerce. In this the court but applied the rule, announced in Brown v. Maryland (12 Wheat. 419), that where the burden of a tax falls on a thing which is the subject of taxation, the tax is to be considered as laid on the thing rather than on him who is charged with the duty of paying it into the treasury. In that case, it was said, a tax on the sale of an article, imported only for sale, was a tax on the article itself. To the same general effect are Welton v. State of Missouri, 91 U.S. 275; Cook v. Pennsylvania, 97 id. 566; and Webber v. Virginia, 103 id. 344. Taxes upon passenger carriers of a specific amount for each passenger carried were held to be taxes on the passengers, in Passenger Cases, 7 How. 283; Crandall v. State of Nevada, 6 Wall. 35; and Henderson v. The Mayor, 92 U.S. 259. Taxes on vessels according to measurement, without any reference to value, were declared to be taxes on tonnage. State Tonnge Cases, 12 Wall. 204; Peete v. Morgan, 19 id. 581; Cannon v. New Orleans, 20 id. 577; and Inman Steamship Co. v. Tinker, 94 U.S. 238.

The present case, as it seems to us, comes within this principle. The tax is the same on every message sent, and because it is sent, without regard to the distance carried or the price charged. It is in no respect proportioned according to the business done. If the message is sent the tax must be paid, and the amount determined solely by the class to which it belongs. If it is full rate, the tax is one cent, and if less than full rate, one-half cent. Clearly if a fixed tax for every two thousand pounds of freight carried is a tax on the freight, or for every measured ton of a vessel a tax on tonnage, or for every passenger carried a tax on the passenger, or for the sale of goods a tax on the goods, this must be a tax on the messages. As such, so far as it operates on private messages sent out of the State, it is a regulation of foreign and inter-state commerce and beyond the power of the State. That is fully established by the cases already cited. As to the government messages, it is a tax by the State on the means employed by the government of the United States to execute its constitutional powers, and, therefore, void. It was so decided in McCulloch v. Maryland (4 Wheat. 316) and has never been doubted since.

It follows that the judgment, so far as it includes the tax on messages sent out of the State, or for the government on public business, is erroneous. The rule that the regulation of commerce which is confined exclusively within the jurisdiction and territory of a State, and does not affect other nations or States or the Indian tribes, that is to say, the purely internal commerce of a State, belongs exclusively to the State, is as well settled as that the regulation of commerce which does affect other nations or States or the Indian tribes belongs to Congress. Any tax, therefore, which the State may put on messages sent by private parties, and not by the agents of the government of the United States, from one place to another exclusively within its own jurisdiction, will not be repugnant to the Constitution of the United States. Whether the law of Texas, in its present form, can be used to enforce the collection of such a tax is a question entirely within the jurisdiction of the courts of the State, and as to which we have no power of review.

The judgment of the Supreme Court of Texas will be reversed, and the cause remanded with instructions to reverse the judgment of the District Court, and proceed hereafter as justice may require, but not inconsistently with this opinion; and it is

So ordered.

NotesEdit

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).