Tuesday, November 23, 2004
Press reports out of Pittsburgh indicate that the venerable Glenshaw Glass Company, known to generations of tax professors, lawyers, and students as the party in the seminal Supreme Court case on the definition of income, is in the final stages of shutting its doors after 109 years in business. In the Introduction to our Tax Stories book, I summarize Joseph Dodge's wonderful description of why Glenshaw Glass is one of the ten most important cases in the tax law:
Joseph M. Dodge’s opening chapter focuses on perhaps the central question in the nascent income tax: the nature of income subject to tax. Yet the the tax law struggled with this question for over forty years before the Supreme Court decided Commissioner v. Glenshaw Glass in 1955. The narrow holding in the case -- that punitive damages recovered by a plaintiff in commercial litigation constitutes gross income -- seems quite obvious to us with the benefit of hindsight. Indeed, the doctrine emerging from Glenshaw Glass –- that "windfall gains" are included in gross income -– also strikes us today as the only sensible outcome. But Professor Dodge unearths the great doctrinal and theoretical uncertainty faced by the parties in Glenshaw Glass as they struggled to give content to the Code's use of the phrase "gross income." The Court’s opinion established two enduring principles of the income tax: (1) that the Code, not language in judicial opinions, is the ultimate source of tax law; and (2) that the term "gross income" in the Code is a catch-all phrase that reaches all accessions to wealth, regardless of source, and not specifically excluded elsewhere in the Code. In addition, Glenshaw Glass set the income tax on a modern footing, "free of the clutter and distractions inherited from the nineteenth century and early twentieth century."