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South Central Bell Telephone Co. v. State

March 23, 1999

SOUTH CENTRAL BELL TELEPHONE COMPANY, ET AL., PETITIONERS V. ALABAMA ET AL.


Court Below: 711 So.2d 1005

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Syllabus

OCTOBER TERM, 1998

SOUTH CENTRAL BELL TELEPHONE CO. v. ALABAMA

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

SOUTH CENTRAL BELL TELEPHONE CO. et al. v. ALABAMA et al.

Certiorari To The Supreme Court Of Alabama

No. 97-2045.

Argued January 19, 1999

Decided March 23, 1999

Alabama requires each corporation doing business in that State to pay a franchise tax based on the firm's capital. The tax for a domestic firm is based on the par value of the firm's stock, which the firm may set at a level well below its book or market value. An out-of-state firm must pay tax based on the value of the actual amount of capital it employs in the State, with no leeway to control its tax base. Reynolds Metals Company and other corporations sued the state tax authorities, seeking a refund of the foreign franchise tax they had paid on the ground that the tax discriminated against foreign corporations in violation of the Commerce and Equal Protection Clauses. The State Supreme Court rejected the claims, holding that the special burden imposed on foreign corporations simply offset a different burden imposed exclusively on domestic corporations by Alabama's domestic shares tax. Subsequently, South Central Bell Telephone Company and other foreign corporations went to trial in the present suit, asserting similar Commerce and Equal Protection Clause claims, though in respect to different tax years. The trial court agreed with the Bell plaintiffs that the tax substantially discriminates against foreign corporations, but nonetheless dismissed their claims as barred by res judicata in light of the State Supreme Court's Reynolds Metals decision. The State Supreme Court affirmed.

Held:

1. The State's argument that this Court lacks appellate jurisdiction under the Eleventh Amendment was considered and rejected in McKesson Corp. v. Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, Fla. Dept. of Business Regulation, 496 U. S. 18, 30. That case confirmed a long-established and uniform practice of reviewing state-court decisions on federal matters, regardless of whether the State was the plaintiff or the defendant in the trial court. E.g., id., at 28. The Court will not revisit that relatively recent precedent. Cf. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U. S. 833, 854-855. Pp. 4-6.

2. To the extent that the State Supreme Court based its decision on claim or issue preclusion (res judicata or collateral estoppel), that decision is inconsistent with the Fourteenth Amendment's due process guarantee. Since Reynolds Metals and this case involve different plaintiffs and tax years, neither is a class action, and no one claims there is privity or some other special relationship between the two sets of plaintiffs, the Bell plaintiffs are "strangers" to the earlier judgment and thus cannot be bound by that judgment. Richards v. Jefferson County, The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Breyer

Opinion of the Court

SOUTH CENTRAL BELL TELEPHONE CO. v. ALABAMA

____ U. S. ____ (1999)

On Writ Of Certiorari To The Supreme Court Of Alabama

The basic question in this case is whether the franchise tax Alabama assesses on foreign corporations violates the Commerce Clause. We conclude that it does.

I.

Alabama requires each corporation doing business in that State to pay a franchise tax based upon the firm's capital. A domestic firm, organized under the laws of Alabama, must pay tax in an amount equal to 1% of the par value of the firm's stock. Ala. Const., Art. XII, §229; Ala. Code §40-14-40 (1993); App. to Pet. for Cert. 50a, 52a, 61a (Stipulated Facts). A foreign firm, organized under the laws of a State other than Alabama, must pay tax in an amount equal to 0.3% of the value of "the actual amount of capital employed" in Alabama. Ala. Const., Art. XII, §232; Ala. Code §40-14-41(a) (Supp. 1998). Alabama law grants domestic firms considerable leeway in controlling their own tax base and tax liability, as a firm may set its stock's par value at a level well below its book or market value. App. to Pet. for Cert. 52a-53a (Stipulated Facts). Alabama law does not grant a foreign firm similar leeway to control its tax base, however, as the value of the "actual" capital upon which Alabama calculates ...


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