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UNITED STATES v. CITY NEW BRITAIN ET AL.

decided: February 1, 1954.

UNITED STATES
v.
CITY OF NEW BRITAIN ET AL.



CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF ERRORS OF CONNECTICUT.

Warren, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Jackson, Burton, Clark, Minton

Author: Minton

[ 347 U.S. Page 82]

 MR. JUSTICE MINTON delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented by this writ involves the relative priority of statutory federal and municipal liens to the proceeds of a mortgage foreclosure sale of the property to which the liens attached.

Two mortgages on the real property of a corporation located in the City of New Britain, Connecticut, were foreclosed by judgment sale in the Superior Court of Hartford County, and a gross sum of $28,071.24 was realized. Against this fund, there were claims of some $31,000, including expenses of the sale, the two mortgages, a judgment of record, and various statutory liens asserted by the City and by the United States. The federal liens, securing unpaid withholding and unemployment taxes and insurance contributions totaling $8,475.13, were created by § 3670 of the Internal Revenue Code.*fn1

[ 347 U.S. Page 83]

     They arose at the times the assessment lists were received in the office of the Collector of Internal Revenue for Connecticut*fn2 on various dates between April 26, 1948, and September 21, 1950. The City's liens, which attached to the specific real estate sold in the total sum of $3,587.71, are for delinquent real-estate taxes and water rent. The real-estate taxes became due on various dates in 1947 through 1951, the liens attaching in each case as of October 1 or other assessment date of the prior year;*fn3 the water-rent liens arose upon failure to pay*fn4 and date from December 1, 1947, to June 1, 1951.

A Connecticut statute provides that real-estate tax liens "shall take precedence of all transfers and encumbrances" in any manner affecting the property subject to the lien.*fn5 Another state law gives the water-rent liens "precedence over all other liens or encumbrances except taxes" on the property subject to the liens.*fn6 The funds available for distribution being insufficient to pay all claimants in full, the Superior Court directed that the expenses, the City's liens, the mortgages, the judgment lien, and the United States' liens be paid in that order. The United States appealed from the judgment insofar as the statutory liens of the City were given priority over those of the United States. The Supreme Court of Errors of Connecticut affirmed, 139 Conn. 363, 94 A. 2d 10, and we granted certiorari, 346 U.S. 809.

[ 347 U.S. Page 84]

     We are here dealing with several statutory liens, some owned by the City and some by the Federal Government, on real estate. The Supreme Court of Errors stated that the City's liens were specific and perfected. Such characterization of a lien by the State is not, of course, conclusive against the Federal Government. United States v. Security Trust & Savings Bank, 340 U.S. 47, 49; Illinois v. Campbell, 329 U.S. 362, 371. However, we accept the holding as to the specificity of the City's liens since they attached to specific pieces of real property for the taxes assessed and water rent due. The liens may also be perfected in the sense that there is nothing more to be done to have a choate lien -- when the identity of the lienor, the property subject to the lien, and the amount of the lien are established. The federal tax liens are general and, in the sense above indicated, perfected. But the fact that one group of liens is specific and the other general in and of itself is of no significance in these cases involving statutory liens on real estate only. United States v. City of Greenville, 118 F.2d 963, 964. A mortgage is a specific lien, yet "[a] statutory lien is as binding as a mortgage, and has the same capacity to hold the land so long as the statute preserves it in force." Rankin v. Scott, 12 Wheat. 177, 179.

Thus, the general statutory liens of the United States are as binding as the specific statutory liens of the City. The City gains no priority by the fact that its liens are specific while the United States' liens are general. Obviously, the State cannot on behalf of the City impair the standing of the federal liens, without the consent of Congress. Michigan v. United States, 317 U.S. 338, 340; United States v. Oklahoma, 261 U.S. 253, 260; United States v. Snyder, 149 U.S. 210, 214. On the other hand, the federal statutes do not attempt to give priority in all cases to liens created under the paramount authority of the United States. The statute creating the federal liens

[ 347 U.S. Page 85]

     here involved, I. R. C., § 3670, does not in terms ...


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