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WARNER v. CITY OF NEW ORLEANS , 167 U.S. 467 (1897)

United States Supreme Court


No. 282

Decided: May 24, 1897

William Grant and Wheeler H. Peckham, for appellant.

Branch K. Miller, for appellee. [167 U.S. 467, 474]  

Mr. Justice BREWER, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.

We had occasion in the recent case of Cross v. Evans, 17 Sup. Ct. 733, to comment on the practice of certifying questions in such manner as to practically submit the entire case to this court for consideration. In addition to what was said in the opinion then filed, it may be proper to observe that the purpose of the act of 1891, creating the courts of appeal, was to vest final jurisdiction as to certain classes of cases in the courts then created, and this in order that the docket of this court might be relieved, and it be enabled with more promptness to dispose of the cases directly coming to it. In order to guard against any injurious results which might flow from having nine appellate courts, acting independently of each other, power was given to this court to bring before it for decision by certiorari any case pending in either of those courts. In that way it was believed that uniformity of ruling might be secured, as well as the disposition of cases whose gravity and importance rendered the action of the tribunal of last resort peculiarly desirable; but the power of determining what cases should be so brought up was vested in this court, and it was not intended to give to any one of the courts of appeal the right to avoid the responsibility cast upon it by statute by transmitting any case it saw fit to this court for decision. If such practice were tolerated, it is easy to be perceived that the purpose of the act might be defeated, and the courts of appeal, by transferring cases here, not only relieve themselves of burden, but also crowd upon this court the very cases which it was the intent of congress they should finally determine. It is true, power was given to the courts of appeal to certify questions, but it is only 'questions or propositions of law' which they are authorized to certify. And such questions must be, as held in the case just cited, 'distinct questions or propositions of law, unmixed with questions of fact or of mixed law and fact.' It is not always easy to draw the line, for, in order to present a distinct question of law, it may sometimes be necessary to present many facts upon [167 U.S. 467, 475]   which that question is based. But care must always be taken that, under the guise of certifying questions, the courts of appeal do not transmit the whole case to us for consideration. Here, in addition to the long preliminary statement of facts, the court ordered up the entire record, and counsel, their briefs, assuming that the whole case is before us, have entered into a discussion of many questions, such as the effect of certain limitations in the constitution of Louisiana, which may have been in the case as it was presented to the court of appeals, but cannot be found in any distinct question of law certified to us.

With these preliminary observations, we pass to the consideration of the questions certified, or so much thereof as are distinct questions of law. The first question is one of estoppel. In order to a full understanding of it a brief review of the facts is esential, and for these facts we look simply to the statement prepared by the court of appeals, and not to the bill and exhibits, copies of which it ordered to be sent to this court. From that statement it appears that in 1858 the state of Louisiana undertook the work of draining and reclaiming portions of the parishes of Orleans and Jefferson; that this work was to be done under the direction and control of boards of drainage commissioners appointed for the several districts into which the territory was divided. Provision was made for assessing the cost and expenses of the work upon the property benefited. The work continued under these auspices until 1871, when, by an act of the legislature, the boards of drainage commissioners were abolished, and the work of drainage transferred to a canal company. But the duty of collecting the assessments was imposed upon the board of administrators of the city of New Orleans, and the administrator of accounts was directed to draw warrants on the administrator of finance against the drainage fund for the payments of amounts due for the work. Warner Van Norden became the transferee of the canal company, and completed about two-thirds of the work prior to February 24, 1876, when an act was passed authorizing the city of New Orleans to assume exclusive control of the drainage work, and, if it desired, to [167 U.S. 467, 476]   purchase from the canal company and its transferee all the boats, tools, and apparatus pertaining to the work, and also the franchise of the company. This act further provided that the price should be paid by the city in drainage warrants in the same form and manner as those theretofore issued. The whole amount of assessments was $1,699,637.37. Of this, $1,003, 342.28 was assessed against individuals, and the balance against the city of New Orleans on the area of its streets and squares. Of the assessment against private property the city had up to this time collected $229,922. 89. The drainage warrants issued prior to December 31, 1874, had been paid or taken up before this act of 1876 by the issue of city bonds, to the amount of $1,672,105.21, under authority of an act approved April 26, 1872. The city elected to make the purchase of the property of the canal company and its transferee. It was appraised at $300,000, and on June 7, 1876, a formal sale and transfer was executed by the company and its transferee to the city for the amount named, payable in drainage warrants, and the city covenanted 'not to obstruct or impede, but, on the contrary, to facilitate, by all lawful means, the collection of drainage assessments, as provided by law, until said warrants have been fully paid, it being well understood and agreed by and between said parties thereto that collection of drainage tax assessments should not be diverted from the liquidation of said warrants and expenses under any pretext whatsoever until the full and final payment of the same.'

It will be seen that the bonds issued by the city more than covered in amount the assessments against its streets and public grounds and the amount it had collected from private property, and all this had taken place prior to the purchase of the property from the canal company and its transferee. Now, after the city had assumed exclusive control of the work, after it had voluntarily purchased from the canal company and its transferee their property, and had given these warrants, payable out of the drainage fund, it sold some of the drainage machinery, suffered the rest to become rotten and valueless, and abandoned the work of drainage, so that by reason of the noncompletion of the drainage system, as held by the supreme [167 U.S. 467, 477]   court of the state, drainage taxes could not be collected, inasmuch as no benefit had been conferred upon the property. Not only that; it by various means impeded the collection of the taxes, and by conduct, ordinances, and proclamations encouraged and induced the people to refuse to pay the assessments, whereby those due by private persons became valueless.

And now the question is whether the city is not estopped to plead, in defense of liability on these drainage warrants, the fact of the prior issue of bonds to a larger amount than that assessed against the areas of its streets and squares and collected from private property. We think this question must be answered in the affirmative. The city, in respect to the purchase of this property from the canal company and its transferee, and in the obligations assumed by the warrants issued, acted voluntarily. It was not, in reference to these matters, as it was to those considered in Peake v. City of New Orleans, 139 U.S. 342 , 11 Sup. Ct. 541, a compulsory trustee, but a voluntary contractor; and the proposition which we affirm is that one who purchases property, contracting to pay for it out of a particular fund, and issues warrants therefor payable out of that fund,-a fund yet partially to be created, and created by the performance by him of a statutory duty,-cannot deliberately abandon that duty, take active steps to prevent the further creation of the fund, and then, there being nothing in the fund, plead, in defense to a liability on the warrants drawn on that fund, that it had, prior to the purchase, paid off obligations theretofore created against the fund. Whatever equity may do in setting off against all warrants drawn before this purchase from the canal company and its transferee the bonds issued by the city (and in respect to that matter we can only refer to Peake v. City of New Orleans, supra), it by no means follows that the city can draw new warrants on the fund in payment for property which it voluntarily purchases, and then abandon the work by which alone the fund could be made good, resort to means within its power to prevent any payments of assessments into that fund, and thus, after violating its contract promise not to obstruct or impede, but on the contrary to facilitate, by all lawful [167 U.S. 467, 478]   means, the collection of the assessments, plead its prior issue of bonds as a reason for evading any liability upon the warrants. One who purchases property, and pays for it in warrants drawn upon a particular fund, the creation of which depends largely on his own action, is under an implied obligation to do whatever is reasonable and fair to make that fund good. He cannot certainly so act as to prevent the fund being made good, and then say to his vendor, 'You must look to the fund, and not to me.' We are clear in the opinion, therefore, that the first question must be answered in the affirmative.

With reference to the second, we are of the opinion that it does not come within the rule in respect to certifying distinct questions of law. It invites an inquiry into all the matters considered in the case of Peake v. City of New Orleans (and there were many), and asks whether the matters there decided apply to the facts of this case and operate to defeat the plaintiff's action. In other words, the question puts the facts of the one case over against the facts of the other, and asks us to search the record in each to see whether the one case operates to bar the other. Surely that is practically submitting the whole case, instead of certifying a distinct question of law. Our decision, therefore, is that the first question must be answered in the affirmative, and the second we decline to answer.

Ordered accordingly.

Mr. Justice WHITE and Mr. Justice PECKHAM took no part in the decision of this case.

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WARNER v. CITY OF NEW ORLEANS , 167 U.S. 467 (1897)

Citation: 167 U.S. 467

Docket No: No. 282

Decided: May 24, 1897

Court: United States Supreme Court

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