James v. United States (1961)

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James v. United States
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued November 17, 1960
Decided May 15, 1961
Full case name James v. United States
Citations 366 U.S. 213 (more)
81 S. Ct. 1052; 6 L. Ed. 2d 246; 1961 U.S. LEXIS 2014; 61-1 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) P9449; 7 A.F.T.R.2d (RIA) 1361; 1961-2 C.B. 9
Prior history Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
Ill-gotten gains constitute taxable income, even if they must be repaid.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Earl Warren
Associate Justices
Hugo Black · Felix Frankfurter
William O. Douglas · Tom C. Clark
John M. Harlan II · William J. Brennan, Jr.
Charles E. Whittaker · Potter Stewart
Case opinions
Majority Warren, joined by Brennan, Stewart
Concurrence Black (in part), joined by Douglas
Concurrence Harlan (in part), joined by Frankfurter
Concurrence Whittaker (in part), joined by Black, Douglas
Concurrence Clark (in part)
Laws applied
U.S. Const., U.S. Const. amend. XVI

James v. United States, 366 U.S. 213 (1961)[1], was a case in which the United States Supreme Court held that money obtained by a taxpayer illegally was taxable income, even though the law might require the taxpayer to repay the ill-gotten gains to the person from whom they had been taken.


The defendant, Eugene James, was an official in a labor union who had embezzled more than $738,000 in union funds, and did not report these amounts on his tax return. He was tried for tax evasion, and claimed in his defense that embezzled funds did not constitute taxable income. His argument was that just as the receipt of loan proceeds is not taxable to the borrower (because of the borrower's corresponding obligation to repay the loan), the person who embezzles money should not be treated as having received income, since that person is legally obligated to return those funds to their rightful owner. Indeed, Eugene James pointed out, the Supreme Court had previously made such a determination in Commissioner v. Wilcox, 327 U.S. 404 (1946). However, this defense was unavailing in the trial court, where Eugene James was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison.


The Supreme Court was called upon to determine whether the receipt of embezzled funds constitutes income taxable to the wrongdoer, even though an obligation to repay exists.


The Supreme Court ruled that under section 22(a) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1939 and section 61(a) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954, the receipt of embezzled funds was includable in the gross income of the wrongdoer and was taxable to the wrongdoer, even though the wrongdoer had an obligation to return the funds to the rightful owner.


The Court was divided between several different rationales. The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, joined by Justices Brennan and Stewart. That opinion held that if a taxpayer receives income – legally or illegally – without consensual recognition of obligation to repay, that income is taxable.

The Court noted that the scope of the Sixteenth Amendment was not limited to "lawful" income, a distinction which had been found in the Revenue Act of 1913. The absence of the "lawful" modifier indicated that the framers of the Sixteenth Amendment had intended no safe harbor for illegal income. The Court expressly overruled Commissioner v. Wilcox and ruled that James was therefore liable for the federal income tax due on his embezzled funds. The Court also ruled, however, that Eugene James could not be held liable for the willful tax evasion because it is not possible to willfully violate laws that were not established at the time of the violation.

Effect of the decision[edit]

Although Eugene James avoided criminal liability, the opinion of the Court left James in a situation where he would be required not only to repay the embezzled $738,000 to the union, but would also be required to pay federal income taxes on the receipt of those funds, just as though he had been able to keep them.

Concurrences and dissents[edit]

Justice Whittaker, joined by Justice Black and Justice Douglas, wrote an opinion concurring in the dismissal of the indictment against James, but dissenting from the overruling of Wilcox. Justice Black raised a Federalism argument, arguing that this ruling constituted a preemption of state criminal jurisdiction.

Justice Harlan, joined by Justice Frankfurter, wrote an opinion concurring with the overruling of Wilcox, but contending that James should have been set for a new trial, rather than set free of criminal liability. Justice Clark wrote a brief concurrence, also agreeing with the overruling of Wilcox, but stating that James' conviction should also have been upheld.

See also[edit]

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