Skip to main content


Reset A A Font size: Print

United States Supreme Court


No. 38

Argued: November 4, 1910Decided: November 28, 1910

[218 U.S. 431, 432]   Messrs. A. A. Gunby and Allan Sholars for plaintiffs in error.

[218 U.S. 431, 434]   Messrs. Henry Moore, Jr., H. H. White, Henry Moore, and Samuel Herrick for defendant in error.

[218 U.S. 431, 435]  

Mr. Justice Holmes delivered the opinion of the court:

This is a writ of error to reverse a decision of the supreme court of Louisiana granting an injunction to the plaintiff, the Louisiana & Arkansas Railway Company, the defendant in error, against the collection from it of [218 U.S. 431, 436]   a special tax in favor of the Arkansas Southern Railway Company, the plaintiff in error. 121 La. 997, 46 So. 994. The agreed facts are these: By art. 230 of the state Constitution of 1898, any railroad thereafter constructed before January 1, 1904, was to be exempt from taxation for ten years from completion, upon certain conditions. The plaintiff built its road through the parish of Winn and gained the right to the exemption. The defendant, plaintiff in error, claims its rights under a vote of the same parish on February 1, 1898, granting a tax of 5 mills to a predecessor to whose rights the defendant has sueceeded. This vote was valid, and effective against all taxable property in the parish. James v. Arkansas Southern R. Co. 110 La. 145, 34 So. 337. Act 35, 6, 1886. Const. 1879, art 242. By its terms the grant was for ten years from the completion of the road, the police jury adding a condition that the railroad should be completed into Winnfield within three years from the date of the vote. Afterwards the police jury extended the time to May 1, 1901, on or before which date, and before the acquisition of its right of way and ground by the plaintiff, the road was finished. It was accepted by the police jury and taxes have been levied and paid in accordance with the vote, beginning with the year 1901. The defendant was proceeding to levy on the property of the plaintiff in the parish, and says that if the Constitution of 1898 is construed to confer an exemption from this tax upon the plaintiff, it impairs the obligation of contracts, contrary to art. 1, 10, of the Constitution of the United States.

The plaintiff says that there is no constitutional question before this court because the supreme court of Louisiana put its decision partly upon the ground that the defendant had not acquired all of its contract rights before the adoption of the Constitution of 1898. Of course, this court must satisfy itself upon that point, and and therefore has jurisdiction. Sullivan v. Texas, 207 U.S. 416 , [218 U.S. 431, 437]   423, 52 L. ed. 274, 277, 28 Sup. Ct. Rep. 215. On the other hand, the defendant asks us to review the construction given to the state Constitution as extending the immunity granted by the above-mentioned art. 230 to special taxes like this. Upon that point, equally, of course, we follow the state court. Louisville & N. R. Co. v. Kentucky, 183 U.S. 503, 508 , 46 S. L. ed. 298, 302, 22 Sup. Ct. Rep. 95; Missouri v. Dockery, 191 U.S. 165, 171 , 48 S. L. ed. 133, 134, 63 L.R.A. 571, 24 Sup. Ct. Rep. 53. Leaving these preliminaries behind, we come to the point of the case.

We shall not consider whether the vote is to be regarded as having been simply an offer at the time of its passage, in consideration of acts to be done thereafter, and as having become a contract only when the road was finished, that is to say, after the Constitution of 1898 went into effect. See Wadsworth v. Eau Claire County, 102 U.S. 534, 538 , 539 S., 26 L. ed. 221, 223, 224. We shall assume, without deciding, that it became binding at once, by statutory authority, after the analogy of a covenant ( see Wisconsin & M. R. Co. v. Powers, 191 U.S. 379, 386 , 48 S. L. ed. 229, 231, 24 Sup. Ct. Rep. 107), although liable to be defeated by the nonperformance of the condition attached. We assume also that the condition was satisfied and the right to the tax earned, and that when earned it had the same validity and force as if it had been gained before the Constitution was adopted. It appears further from what we have stated that when the right to the tax accrued, the land now in the hands of the plaintiff's road was liable to taxation. But these facts and assumptions are not enough to make out the defendant's case.

No doubt a state might limit its control over the power of a municipal body to tax by authorizing it to make contracts on the faith of its existing powers (Wolff v. New Orleans, 103, U. S. 358, 26 L. ed. 395; Louisiana ex rel. Hubert v. New Orleans, 215 U.S. 170 , 54 L. ed. 144, 30 Sup. Ct. Rep. 40), although, unless it did limit itself with a certain distinctness of implication, a subordinate body would contract subject, not paramount, to the power of the state (Manigault v. Springs, 199 U.S. 473, 480 , 50 S. L. ed. 274, 278, 26 Sup. Ct. Rep. 127; Knoxville Water [218 U.S. 431, 438]   Co. v. Knoxville, 189 U.S. 434, 438 , 47 S. L. ed. 887, 891, 23 Sup. Ct. Rep. 531). But there is no such limitation by the state, and no contract by the parish that implies it. An authority given by the state to promise and levy a tax in future years on the taxable property in the parish does not purport to limit the power of the state to say what property shall be taxable when the time comes,-at least, by general regulations not aimed at aiding an evasion of the promise it has allowed. A vote by a parish to pay 5 mills on all the taxable property within its boundaries refers on its face to a determination by the sovereign as to what that property shall be. See Arkansas Southern R. Co. v. Wilson, 118 La. 395, 401, 42 So. 976. The notion that the statute and the vote, separately or together, precluded the state from erecting a jail that should be free from such claims, is untenable on its face. The same reasoning allows the state to go farther, as it has done. We agree with the Supreme Court that it did not transgress the Constitution of the United States.

Decree affirmed.

Copied to clipboard