Massachusetts v. Mellon

262 U.S. 447 (1923)

(Taxpayer Standing)

 

Key Takeaway

The Court doesn't have the power per se to review and annul acts of Congress on the ground that they are unconstitutional. That question may be considered only when the justification for some direct injury suffered or threatened, presenting a justiciable issue, is made to rest upon such an act.

The party who invokes the power must be able to show not only that the statute is invalid but that he has sustained or is immediately in danger of sustaining some direct injury as the result of its enforcement, and not merely that he suffers in some indefinite way in common with people generally.

Massachusetts v. Mellon

Massachusetts v. Mellon

Facts:

These cases were argued and will be considered and disposed of together. The first is an original suit in this Court. The other was brought in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. That court dismissed the bill and its decree was affirmed by the District Court of Appeals. Thereupon the case was brought here by appeal.  Both cases challenge the constitutionality of the Act of November 23, 1921, commonly called the Maternity Act. Briefly, it provides for an initial appropriation and thereafter annual appropriations for a period of five years, to be apportioned among such of the several States as shall accept and comply with its provisions, for the purpose of cooperating with them to reduce maternal and infant mortality and protect the health of mothers and infants. It creates a bureau to administer the act in cooperation with state agencies, which are required to make such reports concerning their operations and expenditures as may be prescribed by the federal bureau. Whenever that bureau shall determine that funds have not been properly expended in respect of any State, payments may be withheld.

It is asserted that these appropriations are for purposes not national, but local to the States, and together with numerous similar appropriations constitute an effective means of inducing the States to yield a portion of their sovereign rights. It is further alleged that the burden of the appropriations provided by this act and similar legislation falls unequally upon the several States, and rests largely upon the industrial States, such as Massachusetts; that the act is a usurpation of power not granted to Congress by the Constitution -- an attempted exercise of the power of local self-government reserved to the States by the Tenth Amendment; and that the defendants are proceeding to carry the act into operation. In the Massachusetts case it is alleged that the plaintiff's rights and powers as a sovereign State and the rights of its citizens have been invaded and usurped by these expenditures and acts; and that, although the State has not accepted the act, its constitutional rights are infringed by the passage thereof and the imposition upon the State of an illegal and unconstitutional option either to yield to the Federal Government a part of its reserved rights or lose the share which it would otherwise be entitled to receive of the moneys appropriated. In the Frothingham case plaintiff alleges that the effect of the statute will be to take her property, under the guise of taxation, without due process of law.

Issue:

Do states have standing to challenge a federal law that establishes a federal bureau that interacts with state agencies and may withhold funding if states do not comply with directions from the bureau?

Reasoning:

We have reached the conclusion that the cases must be disposed of for want of jurisdiction without considering the merits of the constitutional questions.

In the first case, the State of Massachusetts presents no justiciable controversy either in its own behalf or as the representative of its citizens. The appellant in the second suit has no such interest in the subject-matter, nor is any such injury inflicted or threatened, as well enable her to sue.

First. The State of Massachusetts in its own behalf, in effect, complains that the act in question invades the local concerns of the State, and is a usurpation of power, viz: the power of local self-government reserved to the States.

Probably, it would be sufficient to point out that the powers of the State are not invaded, since the statute imposes no obligation but simply extends an option which the State is free to accept or reject. But we do not rest here. In Wisconsin v. Pelican Insurance Co., Mr. Justice Gray, speaking for the Court, said: 

"As to 'controversies between a State and citizens of another State.' The object of vesting in the courts of  the United States jurisdiction of suits by one State against the citizens of another was to enable such controversies to be determined by a national tribunal, and thereby to avoid the partiality, or suspicion of partiality, which might exist if the plaintiff State were compelled to resort to the courts of the State of which the defendants were citizens. Federalist No. 80; Chief Justice Jay, in Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 Dall. 419, 475; Story on the Constitution, §§ 1638, 1682. The grant is of 'judicial power,' and was not intended to confer upon the courts of the United States jurisdiction of a suit or prosecution by the one State, of such a nature that it could not, on the settled principles of public and international law, be entertained by the judiciary of the other

What, then, is the nature of the right of the State here asserted and how is it affected by this statute? Reduced to its simplest terms, it is alleged that the statute constitutes an attempt to legislate outside the powers granted to Congress by the Constitution and within the field of local powers exclusively reserved to the States. Nothing is added to the force or effect of this assertion by the further incidental allegations that the ulterior purpose of Congress thereby was to induce the States to yield a portion of their sovereign rights; that the burden of the appropriations falls unequally upon the several States; and that there is imposed upon the States an illegal and unconstitutional option either to yield to the Federal Government a part of their reserved rights or lose their share of the moneys appropriated. But what burden is imposed upon the States, unequally or otherwise? Certainly there is none, unless it be the burden of taxation, and that falls upon their inhabitants, who are within the taxing power of Congress as well as that of the States where they reside. Nor does the statute require the States to do or to yield anything. If Congress enacted it with the ulterior purpose of tempting them to yield, that purpose may be effectively frustrated by the simple expedient of not yielding.

In the last analysis, the complaint of the plaintiff State is brought to the naked contention that Congress has usurped the reserved powers of the several States by the mere enactment of the statute, though nothing has been done and nothing is to be done without their consent; and it is plain that that question, as it is thus presented, is political and not judicial in character, and therefore is not a matter which admits of the exercise of the judicial power.

It follows that in so far as the case depends upon the assertion of a right on the part of the State to sue in its own behalf we are without jurisdiction. In that aspect of the case we are called upon to adjudicate, not rights of person or property, not rights of dominion over physical domain, not quasi-sovereign rights actually invaded or threatened, but abstract questions of political power, of sovereignty, of government. No rights of the State falling within the scope of the judicial power have been brought within the actual or threatened operation of the statute and this Court is as much without authority to pass abstract opinions upon the constitutionality of acts of Congress as it was held to be, in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, supra, of state statutes.

We come next to consider whether the suit may be maintained by the State as the representative of its citizens. To this the answer is not doubtful. We need not go so far as to say that a State may never intervene by suit to protect its citizens against any form of enforcement of unconstitutional acts of Congress; but we are clear that the right to do so does not arise here. Ordinarily, at least, the only way in which a State may afford protection to its citizens in such cases is through the enforcement of its own criminal statutes, where that is appropriate, or by opening its courts to the injured persons for the maintenance of civil suits or actions. But the citizens of Massachusetts are also citizens of the United States. It cannot be conceded that a State, as parens patriae, may institute judicial proceedings to protect citizens of the United States from the operation of the statutes thereof.

Second. The right of a taxpayer to enjoin the execution of a federal appropriation act, on the ground that it is invalid and will result in taxation for illegal purposes, has never been passed upon by this Court. In cases where it was presented, the question has either been allowed to pass sub silentio or the determination of it expressly withheld. The relation of a taxpayer of the United States to the Federal Government is very different. His interest in the moneys of the Treasury -- partly realized from taxation and partly from other sources -- is shared with millions of others; is comparatively minute and indeterminable; and the effect upon future taxation, of any payment out of the funds, so remote, fluctuating and uncertain, that no basis is afforded for an appeal to the preventive powers of a court of equity.

The administration of any statute, likely to produce additional taxation to be imposed upon a vast number of taxpayers, the extent of whose several liability is indefinite and constantly changing, is essentially a matter of public and not of individual concern. If one taxpayer may champion and litigate such a cause, then every other taxpayer may do not same, not only in respect of the statute here under review but also in respect of every other appropriation act and statute whose administration requires the outlay of public money, and whose validity may be questioned.

The general rule is that neither department may invade the province of the other and neither may control, direct or restrain the action of the other. We are not now speaking of the merely ministerial duties of officials. We have no power per se to review and annul acts of Congress on the ground that they are unconstitutional. That question may be considered only when the justification for some direct injury suffered or threatened, presenting a justiciable issue, is made to rest upon such an act. Then the power exercised is that of ascertaining and declaring the law applicable to the controversy. It amounts to little more than the negative power to disregard an unconstitutional enactment, which otherwise would stand in the way of the enforcement of a legal right. The party who invokes the power must be able to show not only that the statute is invalid but that he has sustained or is immediately in danger of sustaining some direct injury as the result of its enforcement, and not merely that he suffers in some indefinite way in common with people generally. If a case for preventive relief be presented the court enjoins, in effect, not the execution of the statute, but the acts of the official, the statute notwithstanding.

Here the parties plaintiff have no such case. Looking through forms of words to the substance of their complaint, it is merely that officials of the executive department of the government are executing and will execute an act of Congress asserted to be unconstitutional; and this we are asked to prevent. To do so would be not to decide a judicial controversy, but to assume a position of authority over the governmental acts of another and co-equal department, an authority which plainly we do not possess.

Holding:

1.      This Court has no jurisdiction of an original proceeding by a State if the matter is not of justiciable character

2.      As the statute does not require the plaintiff to do or yield anything, and as no burden is imposed by it other than that of taxation, which falls, not on the State but on her inhabitants, who are within the federal as well as the state, taxing power, the complaint resolves down to the naked contention that Congress has usurped reserved powers of the States by the mere enactment of the statute, though nothing has been, or is to be, done under it without their consent, -- an abstract question of political power, not a matter of judicial cognizance.

3.      A State may not, as parens patriae, institute judicial proceedings to protect her citizens (who are no less citizens of the United States), from the operation of a federal statute upon the ground that, as applied to them, it is unconstitutional.

4.      A suit by an individual, as a past and future federal taxpayer, to restrain the enforcement of an act of Congress authorizing appropriations of public money, upon the ground that the act is invalid, cannot be entertained in equity.

5.      To invoke the judicial power to disregard a statute as unconstitutional, the party who assails it must show not only that the statute is invalid, but that he has sustained, or is immediately in danger of sustaining, some direct injury as a result of its enforcement, and not merely that he suffers in some indefinite way in common with people generally.

 

Court Syllabus

1. This Court has no jurisdiction of an original proceeding by a State if the matter is not of justiciable character.

2. The Act of November 23, 1921 called the "Maternity Act," authorizes appropriations, to be apportioned among such of the States as shall accept and comply with its provisions, for the purpose of cooperating with them to reduce maternal and infant mortality and to protect the health of mothers and infants; it provides for its administration by a federal bureau in cooperation with state agencies, which are to make such reports of their operations and expenditures as the bureau may prescribe; and that, whenever the bureau shall determine that funds have not been properly expended by any State, payments to that State may be withheld. In a suit brought in this Court by a State, against the federal officials charged with the administration of the act, who were citizens of other States, to enjoin them from enforcing it, wherein the plaintiff averred that the act is unconstitutional, in that its purpose is to induce the States to yield sovereign rights reserved by them and not granted the Federal Government, under the Constitution, and that the burden of the appropriations falls unequally upon the several States, held, that, as the statute does not require the plaintiff to do or yield anything, and as no burden is imposed by it other than that of taxation, which falls, not on the State but on her inhabitants, who are within the federal as well as the state, taxing power, the complaint resolves down to the naked contention that Congress has usurped reserved powers of the States by the mere enactment of the statute, though nothing has been, or is to be, done under it without their consent, -- an abstract question of political power, not a matter of judicial cognizance.

3. A State may not, as parens patriae, institute judicial proceedings to protect her citizens (who are no less citizens of the United States), from the operation of a federal statute upon the ground that, as applied to them, it is unconstitutional.

4. A suit by an individual, as a past and future federal taxpayer, to restrain the enforcement of an act of Congress authorizing appropriations of public money, upon the ground that the act is invalid, cannot be entertained in equity.

5. To invoke the judicial power to disregard a statute as unconstitutional, the party who assails it must show not only that the statute is invalid, but that he has sustained, or is immediately in danger of sustaining, some direct injury as a result of its enforcement, and not merelythat he suffers in some indefinite way in common with people generally.


How the Justices Voted

Majority: Sutherland, joined by unanimous


Overruled by: Flast v. Cohen