Bennett v. Hunter/Opinion of the Court
|Bennett v. Hunter by
Opinion of the Court
The case requires the consideration and determination of one point only, namely, whether the commissioners under the act could make a sale for taxes, notwithstanding a previous tender of the amount due?
In order to a right understanding of the real point in controversy, however, it will be useful to notice briefly the occasion and the objects of the enactments which have given rise to it.
The necessities of the war, arising from the rebellion, demanded immediate provision of adequate funds. For this purpose Congress increased the duties on customs, imposed a duty on incomes, and laid a direct tax of twenty millions of dollars upon lands. This latter tax was apportioned, agreeably to the direction of the Constitution, among the several States in proportion to their respective numbers; and it was provided that, if the act could not be carried into execution in any State in consequence of rebellion, it should be the duty of the President to proceed, as soon as the authority of the United States should be re-established therein, to collect both the land tax and the income tax, with six per cent. interest.
The income tax thus imposed has never been collected; but provision was made by the act of June 7th, 1862, for the collection of the land tax in the insurgent States. This act, or some similar provision, was necessary to enable the President to perform the duty devolved upon him by the act of 1861. The acts of 1861 and 1862 are, therefore, to be construed together. The general object of both was the same, namely, the raising of revenue by a tax on land. The first prescribed a mode of collection where the authority of the General Government was acknowledged, and no serious obstacle existed to the execution of the law; the second directed the mode of collection where this authority had been overthrown by insurrection, but had been sufficiently reestablished to make collection, to some extent at least, practicable.
The provisions of the latter act were necessarily adapted to the peculiar circumstances in which it was to be executed, and were in most respects more stringent than those of the former. The first act, for example, directed the assessment of lands by assessors to be appointed under it; the second adopted the valuation made under the authority of the several States prior to the rebellion, and charged directly upon each parcel of land its proportion of the tax apportioned to the State. Under the first act, delinquent tax-payers were permitted, at any time after advertisement for sale, and before actual sale, to pay the amount assessed with ten per cent. penalty, and thus relieve their lands. The second act imposed on each tract, without respect to delinquency on the part of the owner, a penalty of fifty per cent. in addition to its proportion of the tax upon the State, and, it is contended, allowed payment only within sixty days after assessment. In the earlier act indulgent provision was made for redemption after sale; in the latter, onerous conditions were imposed on such redemption.
Without adverting further to particular points of difference between the two acts, it may be observed that their most striking contrast was in their practical application.
The several adhering States, under the act of 1861, assumed and paid their respective quotas, and collected the amount of the tax from their own citizens under their own laws, so that in those States the machinery of the law was never really put in action; while in the insurgent States the act of 1862, so far as it was executed at all, was carried into effect according to its terms by the officials of the National government. In this way, the citizens of the adhering States were relieved from the processes of collection and from penalties and forfeitures for non-payment, while the citizens of the insurgent States who could not be thus relieved were exposed to their unmitigated operation.
Keeping these circumstances in view, we are to consider the effect of the sale for taxes made, as we have already stated, to the lessor of the plaintiff. And this must depend mainly on the construction to be given to the fourth section of the act of 1862.
This section provides 'that the title of, in, and to each and every piece and parcel of land upon which said tax has not been paid as above provided, shall thereupon become forfeited to the United States; and upon the sale hereinafter provided for shall vest in the United States, or in the purchasers at such sale, in fee simple, free and discharged from all prior liens, incumbrances, right, title, and claim whatsoever.'
And we are first to consider whether the first clause of this section, proprio vigore, worked a transfer to the United States of the land declared to be forfeited.
The counsel for the plaintiff in error have insisted earnestly that such was its effect. But it must be remembered that the primary object of the act was, undoubtedly, revenue, to be raised by collection of taxes assessed upon lands. It is true that a different purpose appears to have dictated the provisions relating to redemption after sale, and to the disposition of the lands purchased by the government; a policy which had reference to the suppression of rebellion rather than to revenue. But this purpose did not affect the operation of the act before sale, for until sale actually made there could be, properly, no redemption. The assessment of the tax merely created a lien on the land, which might be discharged by the payment of the debt. And it seems unreasonable to give to the act, considered as a revenue measure, a construction which would defeat the right of the owner to pay the amount assessed and relieve his lands from the lien. The first clause of the act, therefore, is not to be considered as working an actual transfer of the land to the United States, if a more liberal construction can be given to it consistently with its terms.
Now the general principles of the law of forfeiture seem to be inconsistent with such a transfer. Without pausing to inquire whether, in any case, the title of a citizen to his land can be divested by forfeiture and vested absolutely in the United States, without any inquisition of record or some public transaction equivalent to office found, it is certainly proper to assume that an act of sovereignty so highly penal is not to be inferred from language capable of any milder construction.  In the case of lands forfeited by alienage the king could not acquire an interest in the lands except by inquest of office.  And so of other instances where the title of the sovereign was derived from forfeiture. And in the case of United States v. Repentigny,  where the forfeiture to the government of lands arose from omission to perform the conditions of the grant, this court held that before the forfeiture could be consummated by reunion of the land with the public domain, 'a judicial inquiry should be instituted, or, in the technical language of the common law, office found, or its legal equivalent,' should take place. The court said further that 'a legislative act directing the possession and appropriation of the land is equivalent to office found.'
Applying these principles to the case in hand, it seems quite clear that the first clause of the fourth section was not intended by Congress to have the effect attributed to it, independently of the second clause. It does not direct the possession and appropriation of the land. It was designed rather, as we think, to declare the ground of the forfeiture of title, namely, non-payment of taxes, while the second clause was intended to work the actual investment of the title through a public act of the government in the United States, or in the purchaser at the tax sale. The sale was the public act, which is the equivalent of office found. What preceded the sale was merely preliminary, and, independently of the sale, worked no divestiture of title. The title, indeed, was forfeited by non-payment of the tax; in other words, it became subject to be vested in the United States, and, upon public sale, became actually vested in the United States or in any other purchaser; but not before such public sale. It follows that in the case before us the title remained in the tenant for life with remainder to the defendant in error, at least until sale; though forfeited, in the sense just stated, to the United States.
But it has been insisted that the right to pay the tax and relieve the land from sale expired at the end of sixty days after the amount was fixed by the proper authority.
It does not appear when the amount was fixed, or when the sixty days ended. It may be inferred, perhaps, from the fact of sale, that default for payment had continued at least through that time, for otherwise there could have been no power to sell.
If this inference be admitted, however, it by no means follows that the right to pay the tax and have the land discharged from it expired with the sixty days. It is more reasonable to suppose that this right remained as long as the title of the land remained in the owner-that is, until after sale. And this view is confirmed by reference to another part of the act. The seventh section gives direction as to sales, the issue of certificates of sale to purchasers, and proceedings for redemption after sale, and then provides that 'the certificate of sale shall only be affected, as evidence of the regularity and validity of sale, by establishing the fact that the property was not subject to taxes, or that the taxes had been paid previous to the sale, or that the property had been redeemed according to the provisions of this act.' This provision makes it clear that proof of payment of taxes prior to the sale invalidates the certificate, and this could not be unless the right to pay the tax continued until the sale. This seems to leave no doubt on the point that the right to make such payment was not strictly limited to sixty days after the fixing of the amount of the tax.
But to whom did the right to make this payment belong? The obvious answer is, to the owner, either acting in person or through some friend or agent, compensated or uncompensated. The terms of the act are, that the owner or owners may pay; and it is familiar law that acts done by one in behalf of another are valid if ratified either expressly or by implication, and that such ratification will be presumed in furtherance of justice.
But it is insisted that the right of payment is limited by the act to the actual owner in his proper person. But we perceive no such limitation in its terms. On the contrary, the fact that the privilege of redemption after sale is limited to the owner or the loyal person having a lien or other interest, appearing in proper person and taking a prescribed oath, appears to us to afford an irresistible inference that the right of payment before sale is not so limited. It is a right which, under the act, belongs to the owner, and no oath is required in order to its exercise. It is a right to be exercised under the act as a law for raising revenue. It is expressly distinguished from the privilege of redemption after sale and complete divestiture of title, which is accorded upon very different principles, and in pursuance of a very different policy. We cannot doubt that it might be properly exercised by the owner in person, or through any other person willing to act in his behalf and not disavowed by him.
The application of these principles decides the case before us. The title and possession of the land, at the time of assessment, was in B. W. Hunter for life, with remainder in fee to his son, the defendant in error. The life estate terminated, and the fee became vested in 1864. The sum due the United States for taxes, penalty, and costs, was tendered to the commissioners before sale, and it was their duty to accept it. The tender was not objected to as insufficient, but was refused solely because not made by the owner in person. This refusal not being warranted by the act, the tender must be held good. The certificate of sale under which the plaintiff in error claims title cannot, therefore, be sustained. The sale must be regarded in law as having been made after the payment of the tax, and as insufficient to vest the title to the land in the purchaser.
It follows that the judgment of the Court of Appeals of Virginia must be
^7 Fairfax's Devisee v. Hunter's Lessee, 7 Cranch, 625.
^8 3 Blackstone's Commentaries, 258.
^9 5 Wallace, 265.
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