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U.S. Supreme Court

Richfield Oil Corp. v. State Bd. of Equalization, 329 U.S. 69 (1946)

Richfield Oil Corp. v. State Board of Equalization

No. 46

Argued October 24, 1946

Decided November 25, 1946

329 U.S. 69


1. A judgment of the Supreme Court of California reversing, without directions, a judgment for the plaintiff in a suit for a refund of a tax unconstitutionally levied on an export under the California Retail Sales Tax Act, the case having been tried on the pleadings and stipulated facts and the State Supreme Court having passed on the issues which control the litigation, held reviewable here as a "final judgment" within the meaning of Judicial Code § 237, 28 U.S.C. § 344(a). P. 329 U. S. 72.

2. Appellant, which was engaged in producing and selling oil in California, entered into a contract for the sale of oil to the New Zealand Government. The oil was delivered by appellant from dockside tanks into a vessel of the New Zealand Government at a California port; was consigned to a New Zealand official at Auckland; was transported to New Zealand, and none of it was used or consumed in the United States. Appellant filed with the Collector of Customs chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 329 U. S. 70

a shipper's export declaration, and did not collect, nor attempt to collect, any sales tax from the purchaser. Held that a tax levied upon appellant pursuant to the California Retail Sales Tax Act and measured by the gross receipts from the transaction was an impost upon an export, within the meaning of Art. I, § 10, Cl. 2 of the Federal Constitution, and therefore unconstitutional. Pp. 329 U. S. 71-72, 329 U. S. 75.

3. The fact that the provision of the Federal Constitution that no State shall, without the consent of Congress, lay "any" tax on imports or exports specifies but a single exception -- "except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it's inspection Laws" -- indicates that no other qualification of the absolute prohibition was intended. P. 329 U. S. 76.

4. The constitutional prohibition against "any" state tax on imports or exports is not to be read as a prohibition against any "discriminatory" state tax. P. 329 U. S. 76.

5. The commerce clause and the import-export clause of the Constitution, though complementary, serve different ends, and the limitations of the former are not to be read into the latter. P. 329 U. S. 76.

6. The constitutional prohibition of "any" state tax on exports is not to be read as containing an implied qualification. Pp. 329 U. S. 76-77.

7. The process of exportation commenced not later than when the oil was delivered into the vessel of the foreign purchaser. P. 329 U. S. 83.

8. The construction of a state tax law by the highest court of the State is binding here, but is not determinative of whether the tax denies the taxpayer a federal right. P. 329 U. S. 84.

9. Whether a state tax denies a federal right depends not upon the State's characterization of the tax, but upon its operation and effect. P. 329 U. S. 84.

10. The incident which gave rise to the accrual of the state tax in this case -- viz., the delivery of the oil into the vessel of the foreign purchaser -- was a step in the export process. P. 329 U. S. 84.

11. The constitutional prohibition of state taxes on exports involves more than a mere exemption from taxes laid specifically upon the exported goods themselves. P. 329 U. S. 85.

27 Cal.2d 150, 163 P.2d 1, reversed.

Appellant brought suit in a state court for a refund of an allegedly unconstitutional state tax. A judgment for the appellant was reversed by the state supreme court. 27 Cal.2d 150, 136 P.2d 1. Appellant appealed to this Court. Reversed, p. 329 U. S. 86. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 329 U. S. 71

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