Rees v. Watertown , 86 U.S. 107 ( 1874 )

  • 86 U.S. 107 (____)
    19 Wall. 107


    Supreme Court of United States.

    *111 Messrs. H.W. and D.W. Tenney (with whom was Mr. S.U. Pinney), for the creditor appellant.

    Mr. D. Hall (with whom was Messrs. M.H. Carpenter and H.L. Palmer), contra.

    *116 Mr. Justice HUNT delivered the opinion of the court.

    This case is free from the objections usually made to a recovery upon municipal bonds. It is beyond doubt that the bonds were issued by the authority of an act of the legislature of the State of Wisconsin, and in the manner prescribed by the statute. It is not denied that the railroad, in aid of the construction of which they were issued, has been built, and was put in operation.

    Upon a class of the defences interposed in the answer and in the argument[*] it is not necessary to spend much time. The theories upon which they proceed are vicious. They are based upon the idea that a refusal to pay an honest debt is justifiable because it would distress the debtor to pay it. A voluntary refusal to pay an honest debt is a high offence in a commercial community and is just cause of war between nations. So far as the defence rests upon these principles we find no difficulty in overruling it.

    There is, however, a grave question of the power of the court to grant the relief asked for.

    We are of the opinion that this court has not the power to direct a tax to be levied for the payment of these judgments. This power to impose burdens and raise money is the highest attribute of sovereignty, and is exercised, first, to raise money for public purposes only; and, second, by the power of legislative authority only. It is a power that has not been extended to the judiciary. Especially is it beyond *117 the power of the Federal judiciary to assume the place of a State in the exercise of this authority at once so delicate and so important. The question is not entirely new in this court.

    In the case of Supervisors v. Rogers,[*] an order was made by this court appointing the marshal a commissioner, with power to levy a tax upon the taxable property of the county, to pay the principal and interest of certain bonds issued by the county, the payment of which had been refused. That case was like the present, except that it occurred in the State of Iowa, and the proceeding was taken by the express authority of a statute of that State. The court say: "The next question is as to the appointment of the marshal as a commissioner to levy the tax in satisfaction of the judgment. This depends upon a provision of the code of the State of Iowa. This proceeding is found in a chapter regulating proceedings in the writ of mandamus, and the power is given to the court to appoint a person to discharge the duty enjoined by the peremptory writ which the defendant had refused to perform, and for which refusal he was liable to an attachment, and is express and unqualified. The duty of levying the tax upon the taxable property of the county to pay the principal and interest of these bonds was specially enjoined upon the board of supervisors by the act of the legislature that authorized their issue, and the appointment of the marshal as a commissioner in pursuance of the above section is to provide for the performance of this duty where the board has disobeyed or evaded the law of the State and the peremptory mandate of the court."

    The State of Wisconsin, of which the city of Watertown is a municipal corporation, has passed no such act. The case of Supervisors v. Rogers is, therefore, of no authority in the case before us. The appropriate remedy of the plaintiff was and is a writ of mandamus.[†] This may be repeated as often as the occasion requires. It is a judicial writ, a part of a recognized course of legal proceedings. In the present *118 case it has been thus far unavailing, and the prospect of its future success is, perhaps, not flattering. However this may be, we are aware of no authority in this court to appoint its own officer to execute the duty thus neglected by the city in a case like the present.

    In Welch v. St. Genevieve,[*] at a Circuit Court for the district of Missouri, a tax was ordered to be levied by the marshal under similar circumstances. We are not able to recognize the authority of the case. No counsel appeared for the city (Mr. Reynolds as amicus curiœ only); no authorities are cited which sustain the position taken by the court; the power of the court to make the order is disposed of in a single paragraph, and the execution of the order suspended for three months to give the corporation an opportunity to select officers and itself to levy and collect the tax, with the reservation of a longer suspension if it should appear advisable. The judge, in delivering the opinion of the court, states that the case is without precedent, and cites in support of its decision no other cases than that of Riggs v. Johnson County,[†] and Lansing v. Treasurer.[‡] The first case cited does not touch the present point. The question in that case was whether a mandamus having been issued by a United States court in the regular course of proceedings, its operation could be stayed by an injunction from the State court, and it was held that it could not be. It is probable that the case of Supervisors v. Rogers[§] was the one intended to be cited. This case has already been considered.

    The case of Lansing v. Treasurer (also cited), arose within the State of Iowa. It fell within the case of Supervisors v. Rogers, and was rightly decided because authorized by the express statute of the State of Iowa. It offered no precedent for the decision of a case arising in a State where such a statute does not exist.

    These are the only authorities upon the power of this *119 court to direct the levy of a tax under the circumstances existing in this case to which our attention has been called.

    The plaintiff insists that the court may accomplish the same result under a different name, that it has jurisdiction of the persons and of the property, and may subject the property of the citizens to the payment of the plaintiff's debt without the intervention of State taxing officers, and without regard to tax laws. His theory is that the court should make a decree subjecting the individual property of the citizens of Watertown to the payment of the plaintiff's judgment; direct the marshal to make a list thereof from the assessment rolls or from such other sources of information as he may obtain; report the same to the court, where any objections should be heard; that the amount of the debt should be apportioned upon the several pieces of property owned by individual citizens; that the marshal should be directed to collect such apportioned amount from such persons, or in default thereof to sell the property.

    As a part of this theory, the plaintiff argues that the court has authority to direct the amount of the judgment to be wholly made from the property belonging to any inhabitant of the city, leaving the citizens to settle the equities between themselves.

    This theory has many difficulties to encounter. In seeking to obtain for the plaintiff his just rights we must be careful not to invade the rights of others. If an inhabitant of the city of Watertown should own a block of buildings of the value of $20,000, upon no principle of law could the whole of the plaintiff's debt be collected from that property. Upon the assumption that individual property is liable for the payment of the corporate debts of the municipality, it is only so liable for its proportionate amount. The inhabitants are not joint and several debtors with the corporation, nor does their property stand in that relation to the corporation or to the creditor. This is not the theory of law, even in regard to taxation. The block of buildings we have supposed is liable to taxation only upon its value in proportion to the value of the entire property, to be ascertained by *120 assessment, and when the proportion is ascertained and paid, it is no longer or further liable. It is discharged. The residue of the tax is to be obtained from other sources. There may be repeated taxes and assessments to make up delinquencies, but the principle and the general rule of law are as we have stated.

    In relation to the corporation before us, this objection to the liability of individual property for the payment of a corporate debt is presented in a specific form. It is of a statutory character.

    The remedies for the collection of a debt are essential parts of the contract of indebtedness, and those in existence at the time it is incurred must be substantially preserved to the creditor. Thus a statute prohibiting the exercise of its taxing power by the city to raise money for the payment of these bonds would be void.[*] But it is otherwise of statutes which are in existence at the time the debt is contracted. Of these the creditor must take notice, and if all the remedies are preserved to him which were in existence when his debt was contracted he has no cause of complaint.[†]

    By section nine of the defendant's charter it is enacted as follows: "Nor shall any real or personal property of any inhabitant of said city, or any individual or corporation, be levied upon or sold by virtue of any execution issued to satisfy or collect any debt, obligation, or contract of said city."

    If the power of taxation is conceded not to be applicable, and the power of the court is invoked to collect the money as upon an execution to satisfy a contract or obligation of the city, this section is directly applicable and forbids the proceeding. The process or order asked for is in the nature of an execution; the property proposed to be sold is that of an inhabitant of the city; the purpose to which it is to be applied is the satisfaction of a debt of the city. The proposed remedy is in direct violation of a statute in existence *121 when the debt was incurred, and made known to the creditor with the same solemnity as the statute which gave power to contract the debt. All laws in existence when the contract is made are necessarily referred to in it and form a part of the measure of the obligation of the one party, and of the right acquired by the other.[*]

    But independently of this statute, upon the general principles of law and of equity jurisprudence, we are of opinion that we cannot grant the relief asked for. The plaintiff invokes the aid of the principle that all legal remedies having failed, the court of chancery must give him a remedy; that there is a wrong which cannot be righted elsewhere, and hence the right must be sustained in chancery. The difficulty arises from too broad an application of a general principle. The great advantage possessed by the court of chancery is not so much in its enlarged jurisdiction as in the extent and adaptability of its remedial powers. Generally its jurisdiction is as well defined and limited as is that of a court of law. It cannot exercise jurisdiction when there is an adequate and complete remedy at law. It cannot assume control over that large class of obligations called imperfect obligations, resting upon conscience and moral duty only, unconnected with legal obligations. Judge Story says,[†] "There are cases of fraud, of accident, and of trust which neither courts of law nor of equity presume to relieve or to mitigate," of which he cites many instances. Lord Talbot says,[‡] "There are cases, indeed, in which a court of equity gives remedy where the law gives none, but where a particular remedy is given by law, and that remedy bounded and circumscribed by particular rules, it would be very improper for this court to take it up where the law leaves it, and extend it further than the law allows."

    Generally its jurisdiction depends upon legal obligations, and its decrees can only enforce remedies to the extent and in the mode by law established. With the subjects of *122 fraud, trust, or accident, when properly before it, it can deal more completely than can a court of law. These subjects, however, may arise in courts of law, and there be well disposed of.[*]

    A court of equity cannot, by avowing that there is a right but no remedy known to the law, create a remedy in violation of law, or even without the authority of law. It acts upon established principles not only, but through established channels. Thus, assume that the plaintiff is entitled to the payment of his judgment, and that the defendant neglects its duty in refusing to raise the amount by taxation, it does not follow that this court may order the amount to be made from the private estate of one of its citizens. This summary proceeding would involve a violation of the rights of the latter. He has never been heard in court. He has had no opportunity to establish a defence to the debt itself, or if the judgment is valid, to show that his property is not liable to its payment. It is well settled that legislative exemptions from taxation are valid, that such exemptions may be perpetual in their duration, and that they are in some cases beyond legislative interference. The proceeding supposed would violate that fundamental principle contained in chapter twenty-ninth of Magna Charta, and embodied in the Constitution of the United States, that no man shall be deprived of his property without due process of law — that is, he must be served with notice of the proceeding, and have a day in court to make his defence.[†]

    "Due process of law (it is said) undoubtedly means in the due course of legal proceedings, according to those rules and forms which have been established for the protection of private rights."[‡] In the New England States it is held that a judgment obtained against a town may be levied upon and made out of the property of any inhabitant of the town. The suit in those States is brought in form against the inhabitants of the town, naming it; the individual inhabitants, *123 it is said, may and do appear and defend the suit, and hence it is held that the individual inhabitants have their day in court, are each bound by the judgment, and that it may be collected from the property of any one of them.[*] This is local law peculiar to New England. It is not the law of this country generally, or of England.[†] It has never been held to be the law in New York, in New Jersey, in Pennsylvania, nor, as stated by Mr. Cooley, in any of the Western States.[‡] So far as it rests upon the rule that these municipalities have no common fund, and that no other mode exists by which demands against them can be enforced, he says that it cannot be considered as applicable to those States where provision is made for compulsory taxation to satisfy judgments against a town or city.[§]

    The general principle of law to which we have adverted is not disturbed by these references. It is applicable to the case before us. Whether, in fact, the individual has a defence to the debt, or by way of exemption, or is without defence, is not important. To assume that he has none, and, therefore, that he is entitled to no day in court, is to assume against him the very point he may wish to contest.

    Again, in the case of Emeric v. Gilman, before cited, it is said: "The inhabitants of a county are constantly changing; those who contributed to the debt may be non-residents upon the recovery of the judgment or the levy of the execution. Those who opposed the creation of the liability may be subjected to its payment, while those, by whose fault the burden has been imposed, may be entirely relieved of responsibility... . To enforce this right against the inhabitants of a county would lead to such a multiplicity of suits as to render the right valueless." We do not perceive, if the doctrine contended for is correct, why the money might not be entirely made from property owned by the creditor himself, *124 if he should happen to own property within the limits of the corporation, of sufficient value for that purpose.

    The difficulty and the embarrassment arising from an apportionment or contribution among those bound to make the payment we do not regard as a serious objection. Contribution and apportionment are recognized heads of equity jurisdiction, and if it be assumed that process could issue directly against the citizens to collect the debt of the city, a court of equity could make the apportionment more conveniently than could a court of law.[*]

    We apprehend, also, that there is some confusion in the plaintiff's proposition, upon which the present jurisdiction is claimed. It is conceded, and the authorities are too abundant to admit a question, that there is no chancery jurisdiction where there is an adequate remedy at law. The writ of mandamus is, no doubt, the regular remedy in a case like the present, and ordinarily it is adequate and its results are satisfactory. The plaintiff alleges, however, in the present case, that he has issued such a writ on three different occasions; that, by means of the aid afforded by the legislature and by the devices and contrivances set forth in the bill, the writs have been fruitless; that, in fact, they afford him no remedy. The remedy is in law and in theory adequate and perfect. The difficulty is in its execution only. The want of a remedy and the inability to obtain the fruits of a remedy are quite distinct, and yet they are confounded in the present proceeding. To illustrate: the writ of habere facias possessionem is the established remedy to obtain the fruits of a judgment for the plaintiff in ejectment. It is a full, adequate, and complete remedy. Not many years since there existed in Central New York combinations of settlers and tenants disguised as Indians, and calling themselves such, who resisted the execution of this process in their counties, and so effectually that for some years no landlord could gain possession of his land. There was a perfect remedy at law, but through fraud, violence, or crime its execution was prevented. *125 It will hardly be argued that this state of things gave authority to invoke the extraordinary aid of a court of chancery. The enforcement of the legal remedies was temporarily suspended by means of illegal violence, but the remedies remained as before. It was the case of a miniature revolution. The courts of law lost no power, the court of chancery gained none. The present case stands upon the same principle. The legal remedy is adequate and complete, and time and the law must perfect its execution.

    Entertaining the opinion that the plaintiff has been unreasonably obstructed in the pursuit of his legal remedies, we should be quite willing to give him the aid requested if the law permitted it. We cannot, however, find authority for so doing, and we acquiesce in the conclusion of the court below that the bill must be dismissed.


    Mr. Justice CLIFFORD, with whom concurred Mr. Justice SWAYNE, dissenting:

    I dissent from the opinion of the court in this case upon the ground that equity will never suffer a trust to be defeated by the refusal of the trustee to administer the fund, or on account of the misconduct of the trustee, and also because the effect of the decree in the court below, if affirmed by this court, will be to give judicial sanction to a fraudulent repudiation of an honest debt. For which reasons, as it seems to me, the decree of the subordinate court should be reversed.


    [*] Stated supra, pp. 109-110.

    [*] 7 Wallace, 175.

    [†] Riggs v. Johnson County, 6 Wallace, 193.

    [*] 10 American Law Register, New Series, 512.

    [†] 6 Wallace, 166.

    [‡] 9 American Law Register, N.S. 415.

    [§] 7 Wallace, 175.

    [*] Van Hoffman v. City of Quincy, 4 Wallace, 535.

    [†] Cooley, Constitutional Limitations, 285, 287.

    [*] Cooley, Constitutional Limitations, 285.

    [†] 1 Equity Jurisprudence, § 61.

    [‡] Heard v. Stanford, Cases Tempore Talbot, 174.

    [*] 1 Story's Equity Jurisprudence, § 60.

    [†] Westervelt v. Gregg, 12 New York, 209.

    [‡] Ib.

    [*] See the cases collected in Cooley's Constitutional Limitations, 240-245.

    [†] Russel v. Men of Devon, 2 Term, 667.

    [‡] See Emeric v. Gilman, 10 California, 408, where all the cases are collected.

    [§] Cooley's Constitutional Limitations, 246.

    [*] 1 Story's Equity Jurisprudence, § 470 and onwards.

Document Info

Citation Numbers: 86 U.S. 107, 19 Wall. 107, 22 L. Ed. 72, 1873 U.S. LEXIS 1433

Judges: Hunt

Filed Date: 3/18/1874

Precedential Status: Precedential

Modified Date: 4/15/2017

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