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decided: December 12, 1921.



Author: Holmes

[ 257 U.S. Page 269]

 MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the court.

This is a bill to prevent the enforcement against the plaintiff of a statute of West Virginia that forbids engaging in the business of transporting petroleum in pipe lines without the payment of a tax of two cents for each barrel of oil transported. Acts of 1919, Extraordinary Session, c. 5. It is set up that the statute is contrary to the Constitution of the United States in several ways, one of these being that as applied to the plaintiff it imposes a tax upon commerce among the States. The plaintiff owns a system of pipe lines in West Virginia connecting with other pipe lines in Ohio and Kentucky on the west and in Pennsylvania on the east of the State. Through the plaintiff's pipes oil flows in a continuous stream to the state line and beyond -- in all amounting to over twenty-two million barrels in the year ending June 30, 1919. There are four

[ 257 U.S. Page 270]

     grades of the oil thus moved. Two of these are produced partly in West Virginia. According to the figures accepted by the defendants in error, out of a total 9,076,599.83 barrels of the Pennsylvania grade 6,510,081.51 barrels came from this State, upon over six millions of which the plaintiff made a charge of twenty, later thirty, cents for gathering, on an interstate tariff and also under a local statute. But all the oil of the same grade was mixed, regardless of source, and of the Pennsylvania grade only 1,239,099.55 barrels were used in West Virginia. It is admitted that the tax may be levied in respect of the last item, but the question before us is whether the tax can be laid upon the whole product of the State upon which was imposed the gathering charge.

The Circuit Court of the State held that the statute was void. The Supreme Court of Appeals sustained it so far as the oil produced in West Virginia was concerned. But as the Court declared that the act should be construed to apply only to commerce within the State it is urged that there is no jurisdiction here of the writ of error because there is no question as to the validity of a statute so limited. The plaintiff in error also applied for a writ of certiorari so that the objection would be immaterial were we not required to determine upon which proceeding the decree should issue. In view of that necessity we dispose of the matter before going further. Upon the declaration of the Court we may conjecture that if it had considered that the oil in question moved in interstate commerce it would have agreed with the Court below, and on this ground it is argued that the mistake, if any, was not in approving the statute but in the Court's conception of interstate commerce. But we must look at what the Court has done, not at its mode of reaching the result. What it has done is to decide that the statute covers all the oil produced in West Virginia and that it shall be upheld in so doing. The nature of the mistake that induced

[ 257 U.S. Page 271]

     the act is immaterial. A case would not be withdrawn from the jurisdiction of this Court in error by a declaration that a statute was addressed only to intrastate commerce if it was applied wholesale to freight passing across the continent. The fact that the error was less does not affect the principle involved. But furthermore the Court only confined the statute to intrastate commerce "as above defined," that is, to commerce that embraced what the plaintiff carried on.

We return to the facts affecting the merits. When oil is received from the producer he receives a credit on the books of the plaintiff pipe line, and thereafter is charged for storage, as it is called, the plaintiff being required by the laws of West Virginia to keep enough oil in its tanks and pipes to satisfy such credits. Code, 1913, ยง 3564. If the producer desires to deliver oil outside the State it hands to the pipe lines company what is called a tender of shipment for so many barrels of the specified kind of oil, naming the consignee, and expressed to be subject to an identified tariff filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission. This is said to be a joint tariff in which the connecting carriers share, but they do not share in the twenty or thirty cents charged for gathering the oil. The argument for the defendants in error of course is that the producer is free to sell within or without the State and that the movement of gathering having taken place before any order is given and while the producer still can do as he likes, it must be regarded as intrastate.

It does not seem to matter for the question before us, whether the delivery to the pipe line be regarded as making it the owner of what it receives and a debtor for the amounts, as in the case of a bank, or as akin to those transactions that are held to make the recipient a bailee of the mingled mass and the bailors tenants in common, as seems to have been assumed. Whether debtor or bailee the pipe line controls the movement of any specific oil in

[ 257 U.S. Page 272]

     its hands and the bailor assents to its doing so. The bailor assents to its becoming part of a stream that is pouring through and out of the State. Its only right is to call on the pipe line to divert a portion of that stream. So far as the oil that it calls for goes out of the State with the general current it seems to us not to be distinguishable from the rest admitted to move in interstate commerce. No bailor has title to any specific oil, and to deny the character of interstate commerce to the whole stream simply because some one might have called for a delivery that probably would have been made from it in an event that did not happen, is going too far. The charges for gathering and storage seem to us not to affect the case. The storage merely means that enough oil must be kept in the tanks and pipes to satisfy credits. The oil runs into a tank on one side and out on the other. The tank may be regarded as a pipe of larger size. Whether the plaintiff in error was right or wrong in relying upon state law for its gathering charge its attitude does not matter here.

As has been repeated many times, interstate commerce is a practical conception, and, as remarked by the court of first instance, a tax to be valid "must not in its practical effect and operation burden interstate commerce." It appears to us as a practical matter that the transmission of this stream of oil was interstate commerce from the beginning of the flow, and that it was none the less so that if different orders had been received by the pipe line it would have changed the destination upon which the oil was started and at which it in fact arrived. We repeat that the pipe line company not the producer was the master of the destination of any ...

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