Thomson v. Pacific R. Co. , 76 U.S. 579 ( 1870 )

  • 76 U.S. 579 (____)
    9 Wall. 579


    Supreme Court of United States.

    *582 Mr. Hoar, Attorney-General, and Mr. Usher, for the complainant.

    Mr. Banks, for the defendants; a brief of Mr. Thatcher being filed.

    *586 The CHIEF JUSTICE delivered the opinion of the court.

    In this case the court has no concern with any of the connected roads which form, or are destined to form, links in *587 the great chain of transcontinental railway. We have only to consider the liabilities and rights of the Union Pacific Railroad Company in respect to taxation under State legislation. Argument has been heard on behalf of some of the connected corporations, only because of their interest in the question, by reason of their similar situation and circumstances in reference to like legislation.

    The counsel for the complainants have justly said that the question certified here for decision is one of very grave importance.

    It was suggested, rather than argued, by one of them, that the property of the State is exempt by the State constitution from taxation; and that the State, having reserved to itself in the charter the right to purchase the road at the end of fifty years at a valuation then to be made, upon two years' notice to the company, has, therefore, a property in the road which cannot be taxed. But it is too plain for argument that the interest thus reserved is too remote and too contingent to be regarded as within the meaning of the exemption.

    The main argument for the complainants, however, is that the road, being constructed under the direction and authority of Congress, for the uses and purposes of the United States, and being a part of a system of roads thus constructed, is therefore exempt from taxation under State authority. It is to be observed that this exemption is not claimed under any act of Congress. It is not asserted that any act declaring such exemption has ever received the sanction of the National legislature. But it is earnestly insisted that the right of exemption arises from the relations of the road to the General Government. It is urged that the aids granted by Congress to the road were granted in the exercise of its constitutional powers to regulate commerce, to establish post-offices and post-roads, to raise and support armies, and to suppress insurrection and invasion; and that by the legislation which supplied aid, required security, imposed duties, and finally exacted, upon a certain contingency, a percentage of income, the road was adopted as an instrument of the government, and as such was not subject to taxation by the State.

    *588 The case of McCulloch v. Maryland is much relied on in support of this position. But we apprehend that the reasoning of the court in that case will hardly warrant the conclusion which counsel deduce from it in this. In that case the main questions were, Whether the incorporation of the Bank of the United States, with power to establish branches, was an act of legislation within the constitutional powers of Congress, and, whether the bank and its branches, as actually established, were exempt from taxation by State legislation. Both questions were resolved in the affirmative. In deciding the first the court did not hold, as counsel suppose, that Congress, under the Constitution, has absolute and exclusive power to determine whether an act of legislation is or is not necessary and proper as a means for carrying into effect one or more of its enumerated powers. It defined the words "necessary and proper" as equivalent in meaning to the words "appropriate, plainly adapted, not prohibited, but consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution," and held that the incorporation of a bank with branches was a necessary and proper means to the effectual exercise of granted power within the definition thus given. It held further that Congress was, within this limit, the exclusive judge as to the means best adapted to the end proposed, and that its choice of any means of the defined character was restricted only by its own discretion. But the question whether the particular means adopted was within the general grant of incidental powers was determined by the court. A great part of the argument was directed to the proposition that the incorporation of a bank was an exercise of incidental power within the true meaning of the terms "necessary and proper," as explained by the court — an argument which would have been quite superfluous if that question was to be determined finally by the legislative and not by the judicial department of the government.

    We do not doubt, however, that upon the principles settled by that judgment, Congress may, in the exercise of powers incidental to the express powers mentioned by counsel, make or authorize contracts with individuals or corporations *589 for services to the government; may grant aids, by money or land, in preparation for, and in the performance of, such services; may make any stipulation and conditions in relation to such aids not contrary to the Constitution; and may exempt, in its discretion, the agencies employed in such services from any State taxation which will really prevent or impede the performance of them.

    But can the right of this road to exemption from such taxation be maintained in the absence of any legislation by Congress to that effect?

    It is unquestionably true that the court, in determining the second general question, already stated, did hold that the Bank of the United States, with its branches, was exempt from taxation by the State of Maryland, although no express exemption was found in the charter. But it must be remembered that the Bank of the United States was a corporation created by the United States; and, as an agent in the execution of the constitutional powers of the government, was endowed by the act of creation with all its faculties, powers, and functions. It did not owe its existence, or any of its qualities, to State legislation. And its exemption from taxation was put upon this ground. Nor was the exemption itself without important limitations. It was declared not to extend to the real property of the bank within the State; nor to interests held by citizens of the State in the institution.

    In like manner other means and operations of the government have been held to be exempt from State taxation: as bonds issued for money borrowed;[*] certificates of indebtedness issued for money or supplies;[†] bills of credit issued for circulation.[‡] There are other instances in which exemption, to the extent it is established in McCulloch v. Maryland, might have been held to arise from the simple creation and organization of corporations under acts of Congress, as in the case of the National banking associations; but in which *590 Congress thought fit to prescribe the extent to which State taxation may be applied.[*] In all these cases, as in the case of the Bank of the United States, exemption from liability to taxation was maintained upon the same ground. The State tax held to be repugnant to the Constitution was imposed directly upon an operation or an instrument of the government. That such taxes cannot be imposed on the operations of the government, is a proposition which needs no argument to support it. And the same reasoning will apply to instruments of the government, created by itself for public and constitutional ends. But we are not aware of any case in which the real estate, or other property of a corporation not organized under an act of Congress, has been held to be exempt, in the absence of express legislation to that effect, to just contribution, in common with other property, to the general expenditure for the common benefit, because of the employment of the corporation in the service of the government.

    It is true that some of the reasoning in the case of McCulloch v. Maryland seems to favor the broader doctrine. But the decision itself is limited to the case of the bank, as a corporation created by a law of the United States, and responsible, in the use of its franchises, to the government of the United States.

    And even in respect to corporations organized under the legislation of Congress, we have already held, at this term, that the implied limitation upon State taxation, derived from the express permission to tax shares in the National banking associations, is to be so construed as not to embarrass the imposition or collection of State taxes to the extent of the permission fairly and liberally interpreted.[†]

    We do not think ourselves warranted, therefore, in extending the exemption established by the case of McCulloch v. Maryland beyond its terms. We cannot apply it to the *591 case of a corporation deriving its existence from State law, exercising its franchise under State law, and holding its property within State jurisdiction and under State protection.

    We do not doubt the propriety or the necessity, under the Constitution, of maintaining the supremacy of the General Government within its constitutional sphere. We fully recognize the soundness of the doctrine, that no State has a "right to tax the means employed by the government of the Union for the execution of its powers." But we think there is a clear distinction between the means employed by the government and the property of agents employed by the government. Taxation of the agency is taxation of the means; taxation of the property of the agent is not always, or generally, taxation of the means.

    No one questions that the power to tax all property, business, and persons, within their respective limits, is original in the States and has never been surrendered. It cannot be so used, indeed, as to defeat or hinder the operations of the National government; but it will be safe to conclude, in general, in reference to persons and State corporations employed in government service, that when Congress has not interposed to protect their property from State taxation, such taxation is not obnoxious to that objection.[*]

    We perceive no limits to the principle of exemption which the complainants seek to establish. It would remove from the reach of State taxation all the property of every agent of the government. Every corporation engaged in the transportation of mails, or of government property of any description, by land or water, or in supplying materials for the use of the government, or in performing any service of whatever kind, might claim the benefit of the exemption. The amount of property now held by such corporations, and having relations more or less direct to the National government and its service, is very great. And this amount is continually increasing; so that it may admit of question *592 whether the whole income of the property which will remain liable to State taxation, if the principle contended for is admitted and applied in its fullest extent, may not ultimately be found inadequate to the support of the State governments.

    The nature of the claims to exemption which would be set up, is well illustrated by that which is advanced in behalf of the complainants in the case before us. The very ground of claim is in the bounties of the General Government. The allegation is, that the government has advanced large sums to aid in construction of the road; has contented itself with the security of a second mortgage; has made large grants of land upon no condition of benefit to itself, except that the company will perform certain services for full compensation, independently of those grants; and will admit the government to a very limited and wholly contingent interest in remote net income. And because of these advances and these grants, and this fully compensated employment, it is claimed that this State corporation, owing its being to State law, and indebted for these benefits to the consent and active interposition of the State legislature, has a constitutional right to hold its property exempt from State taxation; and this without any legislation on the part of Congress which indicates that such exemption is deemed essential to the full performance of its obligations to the government.

    We are unable to find in the Constitution any warrant for the exemption from State taxation claimed in behalf of the complainants; and must, therefore, answer the question certified to us



    [*] Weston v. City of Charleston, 2 Peters, 467.

    [†] The Banks v. The Mayor, 7 Wallace, 24.

    [‡] Bank v. Supervisors, Ib. 28.

    [*] Van Allen v. The Assessors, 3 Id. 573; Bradley v. The People, 4 Id. 459; People v. Commissioners, Ib. 244.

    [†] National Bank v. Commonwealth, supra, 353; Lionberger v. Rowse, supra, 468.

    [*] Lane County v. Oregon, 7 Wallace, 77; National Bank v. Commonwealth, supra, 353.