Abstract

The state tax field is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. The Supreme Court has displayed a renewed interest in the area, handing down an unusual number of significant decisions addressed to the constitutional restraints on state tax power. State courts have exhibited a similar revival of interest in these problems through an out-pouring of uncharacteristically thoughtful opinions concerning state taxation of multistate and multinational enterprise. Congress, whose concern with state taxation of interstate and foreign commerce has been sporadic, is again considering legislation that would limit state taxing authority in these domains.

Even the executive branch, which seldom intervenes in state tax controversies that do not involve the federal government's own tax liability, has become embroiled in the broad conflict regarding the appropriate scope of state tax power. The states, acting independently and through the Multistate Tax Commission, have been intensifying their efforts to tax interstate and international business. And corporate taxpayers, whose dollars are ultimately the focus of all of this activity, have become increasingly vocal in seeking relief from state taxing schemes they regard as unduly burdensome.

The Court's two most recent decisions delineating the constitutional constraints on state taxation of interstate and foreign commerce should be viewed against this background. In Mobil Oil Corp.v. Commissioner of Taxes and Exxon Corp. v. Wisconsin Department of Revenue, the Court upheld state income taxes imposed on multistate and multinational corporations. The opinions reflect a generous view of state taxing authority. Because they explore a number of sensitive issues that have been brewing in the state courts and administrative agencies for years, the opinions are important in their own right. They assume additional importance because they contribute to a climate that may lead Congress to take away from the states what the Court has apparently allowed them. The purpose of this Article is twofold: first, to analyze the Mobil and Exxon decisions; second, to consider the congressional reaction they may engender.