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BURRILL v. LOCOMOBILE CO , 258 U.S. 34 (1922)

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United States Supreme Court


No. 98

Argued: Decided: February 27, 1922

[258 U.S. 34, 35]   Mr. Wm. Harold Hitchcock, of Boston, Mass., for plaintiff in error.

Messrs. Wm. P. Everts and Edward E. Blodgett, both of Boston, Mass., for defendants in error.

[258 U.S. 34, 36]  

Mr. Justice HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.

These are suits by foreign corporations to recover taxes alleged to have been paid to the defendant, the Treasurer of Massachusetts, under duress, and in obedience to statutes held by this Court to be unconstitutional in International Paper Co. v. Massachusetts, 246 U.S. 135 , 38 Sup. Ct. 292, Ann. Cas. 1918C, 617, and [258 U.S. 34, 37]   Locomobile Co. v. Massachusetts, 246 U.S. 146 , 38 Sup. Ct. 298. On the merits the defendant says that these taxes were collected under St. 1909, c. 490, part 3, 56, held valid in Baltic Mining Co. v. Massachusetts, 231 U.S. 68 , 34 Sup. Ct. 15; that the maximum limit to the tax fixed by that statute, which saved it, was supposed by this Court in the later decisions mentioned to have been removed by a later Act of 1914, c. 724 ( 246 U.S. 145 , 38 Sup. Ct. 292, Ann. Cas. 1918C, 617); but that since that time the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has held that the Act of 1909 was independent of the statute of 1914 and remained valid and unaffected by the latter unconstitutional act (Liquid Carbonic Co. v. Commonwealth, 232 Mass. 19, 121 N. E. 514; Lawton Spinning Co. v. Commonwealth, 232 Mass. 28, 121 N. E. 518). It also says that by section 70 of the Act of 1909 any corporation aggrieved by the exaction of the tax may within six months after payment apply by petition to the Supreme Judicial Court, which shall be the exclusive remedy; that there is a provision in section 71 for prompt repayment of any sum adjudged to have been illegally exacted, and that these sections are a bar to a personal suit.

It is unnecessary to go farther than to say that we agree with the defendant upon the latter point. As to the construction of the words, they mean, we have no doubt, what was expressed more at length in an earlier statute on the same matter, that the petition 'shall take the place of any and all actions which might otherwise be maintained by such corporation on account of the assessment and collection of such tax, and shall be the exclusive remedy.' Stat. 1867, c. 52, 4; continued with slight change in Pub. Sts. (1882), c. 13, 66, and abridged to the present form in Rev. Laws (1902), c. 14, 67. The words embodied a fixed policy of the State and must stand whether the levy of the tax is good or bad.

But it is said that a State cannot be up the plaintiffs to suits in its own courts, and this objection coupled with the suggestion that the Legislature might shorten the time [258 U.S. 34, 38]   still farther or deny all remedy, if the defense is good, prevailed with the judge who decided these cases, as appears from International Paper Co. v. Burrill (D. C.) 260 Fed. 664, 668, 669. We may dispose of the latter point first. The time for filing the petition is not unreasonably short for this class of cases, considering that the statute is dealing with taxes on the one side and business organizations on the other. And it by no means follows that a Legislature may establish an unreasonable limitation because it may establish a reasonable one. We may lay on one side too the cases that show that states cannot confine parties to their own courts for the assertion of admitted rights. The question here is whether the State could not limit the right of foreign corporations coming into it and the liability of its own citizens in the way supposed. It is true that it cannot constitutionally impose certain taxes upon foreign corporations, but if the law of the United States stops there we do not perceive why the State may not provide that only the author of the wrong shall be liable for it, at least when, as here, the remedy offered is adequate and backed by the responsibility of the State. That it may do so is implied in Arkansas Building & Loan Association v. Madden, 715 U.S. 269, 274 , 20 S. Sup. Ct. 119.

The Constitution standing alone without more does not create a paramount unchangeable liability to an action of tort on the part of all persons who may take part in enforcing a state law that it invalidates. It leaves the remedies to Congress and the States. Congress acting under the Constitution has given to the courts of the United States a jurisdiction in equity that speaking broadly, is the same in all the States and follows its own rules. Rev. Sts. 913 (Comp. St. 1536); Boyle v. Zacharie, 6 Pet. 648, 658; McConihay v. Wright, 121 U.S. 201 , 7 Sup. Ct. 940. But as to trials at common law, except when the Constitution, treaties or statutes of the United States otherwise require or provide, the laws of the States are the rules of decision. Rev. [258 U.S. 34, 39]   Sts. 721 (Comp. St. 1538). Congress has made no provision that governs the liability in this case and therefore has left it to the law of the State where the wrong is done. If there were no statute the common law of Massachusetts would supplement the Constitution as it would supplement the statutes of the State. But the common law of Massachusetts is not superior to its statutes and may be modified by them at the pleasure of the State, at least until in some substantial sense it impairs substantive constitutional rights, which it has not attempted to do. Whether in an otherwise proper case the proceeding given by the statute could be instituted in the District Court is not before us here. See Ames v. Kansas, 111 U.S. 449 , 4 Sup. Ct. 437; Madisonville Traction Co. v. Saint Bernard Mining Co., 196 U.S. 239 , 25 Sup. Ct. 251.

Judgments reversed.

Mr. Justice PITNEY, being absent, took no part in the decision.

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