Humphrey v. Pegues , 83 U.S. 244 ( 1873 )

  • 83 U.S. 244 (____)
    16 Wall. 244


    Supreme Court of United States.

    *246 Mr. D.H. Chamberlain, for the State officers, appellants.

    Mr. T.G. Barker, contra.

    *247 Mr. Justice HUNT (having quoted the several statutes above given) delivered the opinion of the court.

    The stockholders of the Cheraw and Darlington Company contend that the act of the 19th of December, 1855, entitled "An act to amend the charter of the Northeastern Railroad Company," &c., formed a part of the charter of the Northeastern Company in 1863, when the privileges conferred upon that company were granted to the Cheraw and Darlington Company.

    The State contends that the privileges thus granted were limited to those conferred upon the Northeastern by its original charter or act of incorporation, passed in 1851.

    All the "privileges," as well as powers and rights of the prior company, were granted to the latter. A more important or more comprehensive privilege than a perpetual immunity from taxation can scarcely be imagined. It contains *248 the essential idea of a peculiar benefit or advantage, of a special exemption from a burden falling upon others.

    There is nothing in the terms of the statute of 1863 to indicate that the legislature intended to limit the privileges conferred upon the Cheraw Company to those granted to the Northeastern Company by its original act of incorporation, and to exclude the important privileges contained in the amending act. The charter of the Northeastern Company, as it existed in 1863, was based upon the two acts of the legislature, passed in 1851 and 1855, respectively. The first act was entitled an "act to incorporate" the Northeastern Company. The latter act was entitled "an act to amend the charter of the Northeastern Company." A charter, in the sense here used, is an instrument or authority from the sovereign power, bestowing rights or privileges; as it is briefly expressed, it is an act of incorporation. Such was the obvious understanding of the word by the legislature of South Carolina. The first act was expressed as creating the incorporation of the company; the second, using a synonymous expression, purported to amend its charter. The words charter and act of incorporation were used convertibly. Whether it be said that the rights and privileges conferred upon the Northeastern, as they stood in 1863, existed in its charter or were derived from its incorporation amounts to the same thing. We have no doubt that all of them were intended to be granted to the Cheraw Company by the act of that year. The charter or incorporation of 1851 had been amended in 1855, and by an act which purported in its title not to create an original authority, but by amending the original charter to bestow additional powers upon the company. After the passage of the amended act, the Northeastern was, in law, as if it had originally been chartered, with all the rights, powers, and privileges conferred upon it by the act of 1855. Such was the legal effect of the amendment; and such, no doubt, was the understanding of its effect by the legislature of South Carolina, when, in 1863, they conferred all its powers and privileges upon the Cheraw Company. The case shows that from 1849 to 1863 no sufficient *249 inducements had been found to procure the building of the Cheraw road. We are not advised what other powers and privileges were then and there conferred upon it in addition to the exemption we are considering. But this exemption was conferred; an exemption that must have been understood by the least reflecting person as being of immense value to all concerned in the road. The road was soon afterwards built, and has since then been and now is in operation. These facts serve to show — first, that there was, in this instance, the consideration that at any time exists for the granting by the legislature of such privilege to aid the acceptance of the same and the building of the road; and, secondly, the intention of the legislature, by omitting a reference to the original act of incorporation, to grant all the powers and privileges that had been at any time conferred upon the Northeastern Company.

    Another question is raised, to wit: That a legislature does not possess the power to grant to a corporation a perpetual immunity from taxation. It is said that the power of taxation is among the highest powers of a sovereign State; that its exercise is a political necessity, without which the State must cease to exist, and that it is not competent for one legislature, by binding its successors, to compass the death of the State. It is too late to raise this question in this court. It has been held that the legislature has the power to bind the State in relinquishing its power to tax a corporation.[*] It has been held that such a provision in the charter of an incorporation constitutes a contract which the State may not subsequently impair.[†] These doctrines have been reiterated and reaffirmed so recently as the year 1871, in an opinion delivered by Mr. Justice Davis in the case of The Wilmington Railroad v. Reid.[‡] They must be considered as settled in this court.



    [*] Jefferson Bank v. Skelly, 1 Black, 436.

    [†] Providence Bank v. Billings, 4 Peters, 514; Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 4 Wheaton, 518; The Binghamton Bridge, 3 Wallace, 51.

    [‡] 13 Wallace, 264.