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Law School Case Brief

Massachusetts v. United States - 435 U.S. 444, 98 S. Ct. 1153 (1978)


So long as charges do not discriminate against state functions, are based on a fair approximation of use of the system, and are structured to produce revenues that will not exceed the total cost to the federal government of the benefits to be supplied, there can be no substantial basis for a claim that the national government will be using its taxing powers to control, unduly interfere with, or destroy a state's ability to perform essential services. 


As part of a comprehensive program to recoup the costs of federal aviation programs from those who use the national air system, Congress enacted the Airport and Airway Revenue Act of 1970 ("Act"), which imposed 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 imposed 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; States were exempted from the fuel, tire, and tube taxes. After the registration tax was collected under protest with respect to a helicopter it used exclusively for police functions, plaintiff Commonwealth of Massachusetts instituted a refund action in federal district court, contending that it was immune as a sovereign from the federal tax on state-owned aircraft used for patrolling highways and that defendant United States could not, under the Constitution, impose a tax that directly affected the essential and traditional state function of operating a police force. On the United States' motion, the district court dismissed the complaint on the ground that the registration tax was a user fee that did not implicate the constitutional doctrine of implied immunity of state government from federal taxation. On appeal, the court of appeals affirmed. Massachusetts was granted a writ of certiorari.


Was Massachusetts immune from the use-based tax on state-owned aircraft?




The Supreme Court of the United States held that the aircraft registration tax did not violate the implied immunity of a state government from federal taxation. Specifically, the Court ruled that: (1) the use-based tax did not seriously impair the appropriate exercise of the state government's functions; (2) the subject of tax was a natural and traditional source of federal revenue; (3) the tax was nondiscriminatory; (4) § 4491 applied not only to private users of the airways but also to civil aircraft operated by the United States; (5) the tax satisfied the requirement that it be a fair approximation of the cost of the benefits civil aircraft receive from the federal activities, and; (6) the tax was not excessive in relation to the cost of the government benefits supplied.

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