May 18, 1903
WESTERN UNION TELEGRAPH COMPANY
MISSOURI EX REL. GOTTLIEB
ERROR TO THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF MISSOURI
Fuller, Harlan, Brewer, Brown, White, Peckham, McKenna, Holmes, Day
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MR. JUSTICE McKENNA, after stating the facts, delivered the opinion of the court.
1. On the question of fact, if it be such, as to what constituted the item "of other property at $856,400.56." in the
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assessment by the board of equalization, the trial court and the Supreme Court of the State, are not in accord. The trial court found the "fact to be from the evidence that in valuation 'of other property' of defendant, the state board took into consideration the franchise of defendant company." It is apparent from the court's opinion that by franchise the court meant the rights and privileges obtained by the plaintiff in error under the act of Congress of July 24, 1866. The Supreme Court of the State, however, expressed its conclusion from the evidence, as follows:
"So that, when, in determining the value of the property of the defendant in this State, the board of equalization took into consideration 'the cost of construction and equipment of said Western Union Telegraph Company, and the location thereof, and its traffic and business, and the par value of its stock and bonds, and the gross receipts and net earnings and franchises owned by said company, and the value thereof,' it did not and could not have included therein any franchise derived by the defendant from the government of the United States, because that government had conferred no such franchise; nor was such a valuation placed upon 'all other property,' a tax upon the franchise of the defendant company. The franchise derived by the defendant from the State of New York was considered by the board in determining the value of the property of the defendant located in this State. That is, that property was valued, not as so many poles, so much wire, so many instruments or so much 'other property' in the abstract, but was valued in the concrete, in the relation that such property in the abstract bore to other property in the abstract, which being brought into relation towards each other -- into a system, located partly in this State and partly in other States -- gave each part a concrete value, which was much greater than its abstract value. The right to exist -- the franchise -- of the defendant was property, and was subject to taxation, either directly, in the proportion that the portion of the franchise exercised in this State bore to the proportion of the franchise exercised in all other States, or indirectly, as was done in Massachusetts and as was done here, by being impressed upon the
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tangible property owned by it, thereby increasing its value, and by considering the franchise and its tangible property as a system, and then assessing the part of the property forming a part of the system and located in Missouri as of its proportionate value of the whole property constituting the system."
Plaintiff in error asserts the correctness of the finding of the trial court, and insists that it is the only finding that could have been made, and bases the argument against the taxes assessed on that insistence. But if the finding on the question is one of fact, necessarily we are bound by that made by the Supreme Court of the State. The trial court picked out the rights given to the defendant under the act of Congress, denominated them a franchise, contemplated the franchise as a distinct proprietary entity, and, because it was derived from the Federal government, decided that it was exempt from taxation. The necessary consequence was and is to destroy the relation between that franchise and the other properties of the plaintiff in error, regarding them, not as parts of the system, but abstractly -- regarding the poles not differently from other poles, the wire not differently from other wire. The Supreme Court, on the contrary, regarded the properties as related and as constituting a system, and because of their relation having a value greater than the sum of the values of the individual things regarded merely as such. Viewing the order of the board of equalization, as the Supreme Court viewed it, was it valid? In other words, is the State in exercising its taxing power limited to assessing the mere material things used by the plaintiff in error, and must it regard them as of no greater value than they had when they reposed in lumber yards and factories, with cost added of putting them in place? Or the proposition may be stated another way, which better expresses the ultimate contention of the plaintiff in error. Conceding that the tangible property of the telegraph company derives value from its use in a system, does the company do business in the State in pursuance of the Constitution of the United States and the act of July, 1866, and become thereby an instrument of interstate commerce and a government agent, and as such exempt from the taxation contested in this case? We think the question has been answered by this court.
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In Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Massachusetts, 125 U.S. 530, the effect of the act of July, 1886, upon the power of the State to tax the property of telegraph companies was considered. The laws of Massachusetts imposed a tax upon the Western Union Telegraph Company on account of the property owned and used by it within that State, the value of which was ascertained by comparing the length of its lines within the State with the length of its entire lines. The tax was sustained. The act of July, 1866, was urged against the tax as it is urged here.
The contention of the company in that case was, as it is in this, that it did not derive its existence from the taxing State but from the State of New York; that it did not do business in the taxing State by permission of that State, but by virtue of being an instrument of interstate commerce; that its rights and privileges and franchises were conferred by the United States and constituted it an agent of the United States, and as such agent it was exempt from the tax imposed. The contentions were rejected. The court did not test or measure the power of the State by the name which its laws gave the tax, and, speaking by Mr. Justice Miller, said:
"The argument is very much pressed that it is a tax upon the franchise of the company, which franchise being derived from the United States by virtue of the statute above recited cannot be taxed by a State, and counsel for appellant occasionally speak of the tax authorized by the law of Massachusetts upon this as well as all other corporations doing business within its territory, whether organized under its laws or not, as a tax upon their franchises. But by whatever name it may be called, as described in the laws of Massachusetts, it is essentially an excise upon the capital of the corporation. The laws of that Commonwealth attempt to ascertain the just amount which any corporation engaged in business within its limits shall pay as a contribution to the support of its government upon the amount and value of the capital so employed by it therein."
And that power of the State was explained in an elaborate opinion and sustained. These propositions were laid down:
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That the company owed its existence as a corporation and its right to exercise the business of telegraphy to the laws of the State under which it was organized; that the privilege of running the lines of its wires over and along the military and post roads of the United States was granted by the act of Congress, but that the statute was merely permissive and conferred no exemption from the ordinary burdens of taxation; that the State could not by any specific statute prevent a corporation from placing its lines along the post roads or stop the use of them after they were so placed, but the corporation could be taxed in exchange for the protection it received from the State "upon its real or personal property as any other person would be." And describing the particular tax imposed it was said:
"The tax in the present case, though nominally upon the shares of the capital stock of the company, is in effect a tax upon that organization on account of property owned and used by it in the State of Massachusetts, and the proportion of the length of its lines in that State to their entire length throughout the whole country is made the basis for ascertaining the value of that property. We do not think that such a tax is forbidden by the acceptance on the part of the telegraph company of the rights conferred by section 5263 of the Revised Statutes, or by the commerce clause of the Constitution.'
In other words, the lines in Massachusetts were regarded as a part of a system and assessed accordingly.
The statute of Massachusetts came up again for consideration in Massachusetts v. Western Union Telegraph Co., 141 U.S. 40, and the principles announced in Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Massachusetts, supra, were affirmed and followed. See also Ratterman v. Western Union Telegraph Co., 127 U.S. 411; Leloup v. Port of Mobile, 127 U.S. 640.
These cases establish that in estimating the value of the property of a telegraph company situate within a State it may be regarded not abstractly or strictly locally, but as a part of a system operated in other States, and that the State was not precluded from taxing the property because the State had not created the company or conferred franchise upon it, or because it derived rights or privileges under the act of July, 1866, or
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was engaged in interstate commerce. Every one of the fundamental propositions, therefore, contended for by plaintiff in error, those decisions declare unsound.
But it is contended that the method of assessment followed in those cases was sustained because they were prescribed by the legislature, and that in the case at bar the method adopted was not prescribed or authorized by the laws of Missouri. The answer is obvious. What the laws of Missouri authorized was competent for the Supreme Court of Missouri to decide, and it decided that the order of the board of equalization was legal under the constitution and statutes of the State. The decision, constituting as it does an interpretation of the constitution and laws of the State, is not open to dispute here. If it were, it would seem incontestable that the State could either prescribe the method or confer upon its taxing officers the power to adopt a suitable one. And there is nothing in the Adams Express Company cases, 166 U.S. 171; 166 U.S. 185, 226, to the contrary.
2. The plaintiff in error asserts that the board of equalization practiced discrimination against it by assessing at a value disproportionate to the value assessed on real and personal property by local assessing officers. This defence was expressed as follows:
"Defendant avers that under the law it was the duty of said board of equalization to adjust and equalize as aforesaid the valuation of all real and personal property in the State of Missouri, among the several counties in the State, and that during the period aforesaid it did so proceed to adjust and equalize such valuations. That said state board of equalization, by common arrangement, understanding and purpose among themselves, in fact did, during the period aforesaid, in violation of the constitution and laws of said State of Missouri, with intent to compel defendant to pay a greater proportion of taxes than the owners of other real and personal property in said State of Missouri, assess all property, to wit, other than the property of the telegraph companies, to wit, from thirty-five to forty per cent of its true value, whereby as to taxes levied upon real and personal property other than telegraph property in the State of Missouri, this defendant was unlawfully and wrongfully discriminated
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against to the extent of sixty per cent of the amount of taxes assessed by said state board of equalization and levied by the taxing officers of the State upon defendant in pursuance of such assessment."
Testimony was introduced to sustain the averments.
The Supreme Court of Missouri held, however, that plaintiff in error could not, even under the cases cited by it, avail itself of the defence. The court said:
"The defendant cannot avail itself of these cases, for the reasons, first, that it seeks to raise the question of discrimination by a defence to an action at law to collect the taxes, and thereby collaterally attacks the judgment of the board of equalization; second, that such questions can only be raised by a direct attack, in equity, and then only upon the condition precedent that it pays or tenders the amount justly due and only asks to have the collection of the excess restrained. This the defendant has not done in this case. It simply alleges a discrimination or excessive tax, and then seeks to defeat the whole assessment without paying or tendering anything, notwithstanding it admits by its answer and its proofs that it has property in this State subject to taxation of the value of $541,472.40. Upon the authority of the cases relied on by it, this cannot be done."
We concur in this view. The proceedings before the board were quasi judicial and the order made by it was within its jurisdiction. It was not void on its face, and cannot be resisted in an action at law. This is the principle announced in the case referred to. In Stanley v. Supervisors of Albany, 121 U.S. 535, is cited, among other cases, Balfour v. City of Portland, 28 Fed. Rep. 738. The case is especially pertinent. The action was at law for the recovery of taxes paid under protest which had been levied upon property which, it was charged, had been deliberately overvalued. Recovery was denied. The Circuit Court said:
"The property was subject to taxation by the authority and for the purpose alleged. True, the result reached was erroneous, because of the willful disregard in the proceeding of the law requiring uniformity in the valuation of property for taxation
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within the jurisdiction of the defendant. Still, the proceeding being quasi judicial, and the subject matter within the jurisdiction of the officers who conducted it, the result reached is so far conclusive that the legality of it cannot be questioned in an action at law to recover back the one half of the tax as illegal."
So this court said in Stanley v. Supervisors, supra:
"It is only where the assessment is wholly void, or void with respect to separable portions of the property, the amount collected on which is ascertainable, or where the assessment has been set aside as invalid, that an action at law will lie for the taxes paid, or for a portion thereof. Overvaluation of property is not a ground of action at law for the excess of taxes paid beyond what should have been levied upon a just valuation. The courts cannot, in such cases, take upon themselves the functions of a revising or equalizing board. Newman v. Supervisors, 45 N.Y. 676, 687; National Bank of Chemung v. Elmira, 53 N.Y. 49, 52; Bruecher v. The Village of Portchester, 101 N.Y. 240, 244; Lincoln v. Worcester, 8 Cush. 55, 63; Hicks v. Westport, 130 Massachusetts, 478; Balfour v. City of Portland, 28 Fed. Rep. 738."
And we think overvaluation of property cannot be a ground of defence at law. In other words, the action of the tax officers, being in the nature of a judgment, must be yielded to until set aside. This cas only be done in a direct proceeding. The property owner is in effect a plaintiff, and the condition of relief against the enforcement of the quasi judicial order, which he attacks, is a tender of payment of the taxes that he ought to pay. And this condition would still be upon him if he set up overvaluation as an equitable defence to an action brought against him. County of Los Angeles v. Ballerino, 99 California, 593, 597. This certainly would be so in Missouri, under the doctrine expressed by the Supreme Court of the State in the case at bar.
MR JUSTICE BREWER concurs in the result.
MR. JUSTICE WHITE and MR. JUSTICE PECKHAM dissent.
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