Weyerhaueser v. Minnesota , 176 U.S. 550 ( 1900 )

  • 176 U.S. 550 (1900)


    No. 128.

    Supreme Court of United States.

    Argued and submitted January 30, 1900.
    Decided February 26, 1900.

    *554 Mr. George Welwood Murray for plaintiffs in error. Mr. Moses E. Clapp and Mr. John B. Atwater were with him on the brief.

    Mr. W.B. Douglas and Mr. C.W. Somerby, for defendant in error, submitted on their brief.

    MR. JUSTICE McKENNA, after stating the case as above, delivered the opinion of the court.

    The procedure under the statute is as follows: A complaint to the Governor of the State that a considerable amount of property has been grossly undervalued by the assessor or other county officials.

    The appointment by the Governor of a competent person to examine and report, and if he find undervalued property to prepare a list in duplicate showing its character, location, ownership and valuation, one of which lists shall be filed with the county auditor.

    The entry of the list on the assessment books by the auditor.

    The assessment of the property at its value corresponding to the list.

    Proceedings by the county auditor as under the general law.

    *555 This procedure was exactly followed, and it is stipulated that "the taxes claimed in this proceeding are the proper amount of taxes due against said lands on account of said increased valuation. . . ." In other words, the lands have not been made to bear a greater burden than they would and should have borne if they had been originally assessed at their true valuation. It is, however, claimed that the increased taxation is illegal because the law authorizing it offends the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

    The grounds of the contention are that the former assessments constituted judicial judgments, and hence to commit to the executive the power of setting them aside or to set them aside without notice or opportunity to be heard is not due process of law. And further, that the statute deprives the plaintiffs in error of the equal protection of the laws, in that it gives to owners of similar real estate an opportunity to contest the absolute assessed valuation of their property and to plaintiffs in error only the opportunity to contest the gross overvaluation; and that if the State knew of fraud in the assessments it is estopped to assert it against an innocent party, which plaintiffs in error are claimed to be, and as the statute ignores this doctrine of estoppel, it does not provide due process.

    Conceding, arguendo, that the former assessments were judicial judgments, the argument based on their immunity from executive power or attack is not supported by the statute. It does not commit to the Governor control over them, and it does give opportunity to be heard. The Governor only starts the inquiry upon which the reassessment may be based, and the statute directs the proceedings in an orderly course of inquiry, report, entry upon the assessment books, assessment by the assessor and an action for the collection of the taxes levied in the regular judicial tribunals.

    The complaint of plaintiffs in error seems to be that a hearing before the Governor was not provided. If the basis of this is that the owner of property must have notice of every step in taxation proceedings, we agree with the Supreme Court of the State that it is untenable. Pittsburg &c. Railway v. Board *556 of Public Works, 172 U.S. 32; Davidson v. New Orleans, 96 U.S. 97; Hagar v. Reclamation District, 111 U.S. 701; Winona & St. Peter Land Co. v. Minnesota, 159 U.S. 526. If the basis of the complaint is that the Governor acts judicially and plaintiffs in error were entitled to have notice, and be heard before he rendered judgment, it is also untenable. The Governor does not act judicially — he determines nothing but that a complaint has been made in writing and under oath, or that it has been found by a court, or the legislature or any committee thereof, that a considerable amount of property in a county of the State has been grossly undervalued. If the perception of the fact of a complaint or a finding of a court or legislature is a judgment in the sense urged, every act of government is a judgment, and all of its exercises could be stopped, upon the reasoning of plaintiffs in error, by perpetual hearings. But supposing the Governor's act is a judgment, it ends with the appointment of an examiner. What is substantial comes afterwards, and if against what may be detrimental in that the landowner can be heard, he is afforded due process within the rule announced by the authorities, supra.

    That the landowner is provided with an opportunity to be heard is decided by the Supreme Court of the State. In the opinion in the case at bar the court said, quoting from Redwood v. Winona & St. Peter Land Co., 40 Minnesota, 512, 518:

    "Within 20 days after the last publication of the delinquent list any person may by answer interpose any defence or objection he may have to the tax. He may set up as a defence that the tax is void for want of authority to levy it, or that it was partially, unfairly or unequally assessed. Comm'rs of St. Louis Co. v. Nettleton, 22 Minnesota, 356. He may set up as a defence pro tanto that a part of a tax has not been remitted, as required by some statute. Comm'rs of Houston Co. v. Jessup, Id. 552. That the land is exempt, or that the tax has been paid. County of Chicago v. St. Paul & Duluth R. Co., 27 Minnesota, 109. That there was no authority to levy the tax, or that the special facts authorizing the insertion of taxes for past years in the list did not exist or any omissions in the proceedings prior to filing the list, resulting to his *557 prejudice. County of Olmsted v. Barber, 31 Minnesota, 256. The filing of the list is the institution of an action against each tract of land described in it for the recovery of the taxes appearing in the list against such tract and tenders an issue on every fact necessary to the validity of such taxes. Chauncey v. Wass, 35 Minnesota, 1. The only limitation or restriction upon the defences or objections which may be interposed is that contained in section 79, to the effect that if a party interposes as a defence an omission of any of the things provided by law in relation to the assessment or levy of a tax or of anything required by an officer to be done prior to filing the list with the clerk, the burden is on him to show that such omission has resulted in prejudice to him, and that the taxes have been partially, unfairly, or unequally assessed. This relates not to want of authority to levy the tax, but to some omission to do or irregularity in doing the things required to be done in assessing or levying a tax otherwise valid. Comm'rs of St. Louis Co. v. Nettleton, supra. And certainly, in justice or reason, a party cannot complain that when he objects to a tax on the ground of some omission or irregularity in matters of form, he is required to show that he was prejudiced."

    This court in Winona & St. Peter Land Co. v. Minnesota, 159 U.S. 526, quoted the above extract as establishing that the property owner was afforded a hearing by the laws of the State, and declared the rule that the Constitution of the United States was satisfied if an opportunity be given to question the validity or amount of the tax "either before that amount is determined or in subsequent proceedings for its collection." And referring to the difference in the manner of assessment and the successive opportunities for review which were given to the property owner in one case and not in the other, said: But there is nothing in the difference to affect the constitutional rights of a party. The legislature may authorize different modes of assessment for different properties, providing the rule of assessment is the same. Kentucky Railroad Tax cases, 115 U.S. 321, 337; Pittsburgh, Cincinnati &c. Railway v. Backus, 154 U.S. 421. The latter cases of State v. Lakeside Land Co., 71 Minnesota, 283, and State v. West *558 Duluth Land Co., 78 N.W.Rep. 115, cited by the plaintiffs in error, do not militate against the rule in any way substantial to the pending controversy.

    The special objections of plaintiffs in error therefore cannot be sustained, nor the broader one that the first assessments are final against any power of review or addition by the legislature. We held in the Winona Case, supra, that the legislature had power to provide for the assessment of property which had escaped taxation in prior years and, as we have seen, a special manner of assessment was sustained. We agree with the Supreme Court of the State that a gross undervaluation of property is within the principle applicable to an entire omission of property. If it were otherwise the power and duty of the legislature to impose taxes and to equalize their burdens would be defeated by the fraud of public officers, perhaps induced by the very property owners who afterwards claim its illegal advantage.

    If an officer omits to assess property or grossly undervalues it he violates his duty, and the property and its owners escape their just share of the public burdens. In Stanley v. Supervisors of Albany, 121 U.S. 535, we held that against an excessive valuation of property its owner had a remedy in equity to prevent the collection of the illegal excess. It would be very strange if the State, against a gross undervaluation of property, could not in the exercise of its sovereignty give itself a remedy for the illegal deficiency. And this is the effect of the statute. It "merely sets in motion new proceedings to collect the balance of the State's claim, and there is no constitutional objection in the way of doing this," as the Supreme Court of the State said in its opinion.

    The other objections to the statute do not demand an extended consideration. That it deprives plaintiffs in error of the equal protection of the laws is based on the absence of a provision for notice in the progress of the proceedings, and is answered by the Winona case, supra.

    The fourth contention, that the State is estopped to assert fraud in the former assessment, if we should concede that it has any basis in law, lacks an essential basis of fact.

    *559 The plaintiffs in error purchased after the enactment of the statute, and the record affords no presumptions of ignorance or innocence. If plaintiffs had been attentive to the assessment of the land its gross undervaluation could not have escaped their notice. Besides, whether a party in a case has been given or refused the benefit of the law of estoppel involves no Federal question.

    Judgment affirmed.

Document Info

DocketNumber: 128

Citation Numbers: 176 U.S. 550, 20 S. Ct. 485, 44 L. Ed. 583, 1900 U.S. LEXIS 1756

Judges: McKenna, After Stating the Case as Above

Filed Date: 3/5/1900

Precedential Status: Precedential

Modified Date: 5/4/2017

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